A former bookkeeper for a Bangor-area school district admitted Monday to stealing more than $200,000, telling the judge she took the money to help her son who was addicted to drugs.
Yvonne Mitchell, 57, of Olney, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C., was sentenced to six years in prison with all but two years suspended. She was indicted by the Penobscot County grand jury in May on one count of Class B theft from RSU 63, which serves the towns of Holden, Eddington and Clifton.
Mitchell, who began serving her sentence immediately, apologized for her actions and repaid all of the $215,866 the prosecution said it could prove she took between December 2007 and June 2013. Mitchell said she used to money to pay for her son’s living expenses and substance abuse treatment.
“I want to say I’m sorry to the community members for violating their trust,” an emotional Mitchell told Superior Court Justice Ann Murray just prior to being sentenced. “I know what I did was wrong.”
Mitchell said she did everything she could to help her son, Edward Turner, whose drug addiction led to his multiple arrests and eventual incarceration. Turner died in January 2012 of heart cancer after nearly a year of sobriety, she said.
The school district had a forensic audit conducted that became public in March 2014. The results were turned over the Maine attorney general’s office for investigation and prosecution.
Most of the money Mitchell stole, about $90,000, came from the school lunch program, according to Assistant Attorney General Leanne Robbin.
She said that while Mitchell may have used some of the stolen funds to help her son, she also used the money to pay her daughter’s out-of-state college tuition and her own living expenses.
Members of the RSU school board urged the judge to impose the maximum sentence of 10 years. Both the chairwoman and vice-chairwoman said the district was still recovering from the damage Mitchell inflicted.
“The damage Yvonne Mitchell has committed in and to the district is almost more than can be defined,” Rusty Gagnon, the board chairwoman who represents Eddington, told the judge. “It was more than financial, which would normally be bad enough, but she damaged the children, their futures, their parents, the trust of taxpayers and voters, and the government services in all three communities. She eroded the relationship between the district’s personnel and the board.”
Gagnon said that in 2013, voters approved the school budget by just 12 votes. She blamed the close vote on Mitchell’s unwillingness to provide taxpayers with comparative budget data and the incomplete financial reports Mitchell did provide.
“Both Eddington and Clifton voted it down and only because of enough ‘approval’ votes in Holden to offset Eddington and Clifton did the budget pass,” she said. “In truth, voters in all three communities had lost faith in the management of their tax dollars.”
Vice-chairwoman Jennifer Newcomb said that based on a review by the school district’s attorney, Mitchell took more than the state could prove was stolen.
“Additionally, our district has spent tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars, out of school district finances, on attorneys and forensic auditors,”
Newcomb told the judge. “This is money spent over and above the $215,866 that Yvonne finally admits to stealing. Money that should have been spent enriching the education of our children, instead was spent proving Yvonne’s theft. Our district will never be made whole.”
After the sentencing, Gagnon and Newcomb both said that Mitchell’s son’s drug addiction was no excuse for her theft over such a long period of time.
“I am disappointed it’s not a longer sentence but glad it is finally resolved,” Newcomb said.
In imposing the sentence recommended by prosecutor Robbin, the judge called the payment of full restitution and the fact that Mitchell has no criminal history “very significant mitigating factors.” Murray found the impact on RSU 63 financially and on the morale of staff and teachers as aggravating factors.
“I also find that the theft impacted the school experience of the children and that is an aggravating factor,” the judge said.
Murray also said Turner’s drug addiction did not justify Mitchell’s behavior.
The judge rejected defense attorney Jeffrey Silverstein’s recommendation that Mitchell serve a sentence of nine months or fewer in the Penobscot County Jail rather than be incarcerated at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham.
In addition to prison time, Murray sentenced Mitchell to three years of probation, during which she may not work in a job that requires her to handle money.
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