NEWPORT, Maine — For a woman with so many strikes against her, Cindy Dunton is a calm and composed woman.
She owes more than $250,000 to the town of Newburgh, $200,000 of which she admits she stole over the course of three years.
She lives every day in her Newburgh home, despite the fact that many of the town’s residents despise her for pilfering taxpayer funds while she was their deputy clerk and treasurer.
She pleaded guilty Monday to a charge of Class B theft by unauthorized taking, the most serious larceny charge that exists in Maine law, and she faces a prison sentence of up to 10 years, which could start as soon as July 1.
And when she’s released, she’ll still owe the money and will face a job search with a felony conviction on her record.
Regardless, Dunton ranks town officials’ March 2010 discovery of her crimes as one of the best things that has happened to her in many years.
“When everything was brought out, it was a big relief off my shoulders,” she said Tuesday. “I didn’t have to pretend anymore. Even though I knew what was down the road for me, I was glad.”
Dunton’s interview with the Bangor Daily News constituted her first public statements since her crimes were revealed. Dunton, 48, answered questions for an hour Tuesday in the Newport office of her attorney, Dale Thistle. Her light and sometimes cheerful demeanor underscored her belief that now that she has admitted to her crimes, she can face any consequences, albeit with a little divine assistance.
“The biggest thing that has come out of this is that I’ve gotten back to church and back to God,” she said, her composure fading to tears for the only time during the interview. “I felt as if Satan had taken over my life. I think this was the only way that God could get me back.”
But some residents see it another way. In public meetings and on the pages of this newspaper, their vitriol has been palpable at times during the past year.
“The only thing she’s remorseful for is that she got caught,” Newburgh resident Chris Yountz said Tuesday. “This has been going on for a long time and she obviously felt like she could do anything she wanted to do.”
Dunton first started working for Newburgh, a town of 1,500 people in southern Penobscot County, in 1998. She said the first time she stole from the town was after receiving a foreclosure notice on her home.
“It was sometime in 2006,” she said. “My husband hadn’t worked for several years. We received a foreclosure notice on our home, and I think that’s what pushed me over the edge. It just happened. I don’t think I thought about it much.”
A forensic audit conducted last year revealed that Dunton paid her health insurance premiums and property taxes with stolen money and wrote at least 17 checks to herself and her husband for between $2,800 and $21,500. Dunton said her husband, Alan, who is disabled with neck and back problems, knew nothing of the extra money coming in because she was the one who handled the household finances.
“When all of this came out in March, he couldn’t believe it,” Dunton said of her husband. After being summoned to the town office and summarily fired by selectmen, Dunton said, one of her first moves was to call her parents for financial help. Despite a lifetime of teaching her the evils of thievery — Dunton’s father is a retired minister and her mother is deeply religious — they never wavered in their support for their daughter, said Dunton. Nor have some of Dunton’s closest friends.
“Not everyone hates me,” she said. “Some people have stood by me.” As for the people who blame her, Dunton said she can’t help the way they feel.
“I don’t let things bother me,” she said. “I’m quite resilient.”
Asked where the stolen money went, Dunton said most of it paid household bills. There were no vacations or lavish purchases, she said. She said she even claimed the money as income and paid taxes on it. Asked what motivated her to steal, Dunton said a big part of the reason was because it was easy.
“There was no oversight,” she said. “Nobody ever checked anybody in the town office.”
Dunton had the freedom to write checks to herself, transactions she hid from selectmen by giving them false spending warrants to sign and then adding the fraudulent transactions. Asked what measure could have stopped her, Dunton said a simple requirement that two people sign every check would have made the thefts virtually impossible. Newburgh Town Manager Rick Briggs, who took over months after the Dunton scandal, has made that a requirement since.
Dunton’s sentencing hearing, which will involve witnesses on both sides of the case, is scheduled for 8:30 a.m. July 1 at the Penobscot Judicial Center in Bangor. She said she is raising money from family and friends to make a payment to the town on that date, but couldn’t say Tuesday how much she would pay.
“Hopefully, a lot,” she said. “I feel terrible for what I’ve done.”
Dunton said she accepts what lies in her future. Confessing to her crimes, resolving to pay the money back, accepting whatever sentence the judge hands down and agreeing to an interview with a newspaper reporter are all ways she’s trying to atone for her transgressions. But she said there’s only one entity whose opinion really matters.
“I’ve confessed my sins to God,” she said. “Jesus blots out your sins, so I don’t worry about it anymore.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the date of a sentencing hearing for Cindy Dunton, who pleaded guilty Monday to embezzling nearly $200,000 from the town of Newburgh. Dunton’s sentencing is scheduled for 8:30 a.m. July 1, not July 30, at the Penobscot Judicial Center in Bangor.