A Newport woman who police say stole more than $250,000 from two not-for-profit organizations in Maine has agreed to plead guilty in federal court.
Sheri Gertrude Walsh, 56, worked for the Hancock County Planning Commission in Ellsworth and served as treasurer for the Maine chapter of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs when she embezzled funds from the two groups between November 2014 and April 2019.
The ongoing thefts, which involved Walsh fraudulently transferring money between the two organizations and issuing checks to herself, were discovered in May 2019 after Walsh had been injured in April in a motor-vehicle crash in Dedham and missed a couple of weeks of work at the Ellsworth-based planning commission, where she served first as an administrative assistant and later as acting executive director and the commission’s sole employee. A board member with the commission who went to the commission’s offices in her absence to pay some of the group’s bills discovered money was missing from its bank accounts and contacted police.
Walsh signed a plea agreement last month to federal charges of wire fraud and theft from a program receiving federal funds, according to court documents. During the latter portion of Walsh’s involvement with the groups, from August 2018 to April 2019, the planning commission received more than $100,000 in grants from the Environmental Protection Agency and more than $16,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, according to court documents.
The commission provides community planning and development services to local communities in the Hancock County region.
By law, Walsh could face up to 20 years in prison on the wire fraud charge, up to 10 years in prison for the theft charge, a maximum fine of $250,000 and a subsequent term of supervised release not longer than three years, provided she does not violate the terms of her release. Under her plea agreement with federal prosecutors, Walsh has waived the right to appeal any prison term that is not longer than 21 months.
Walsh is expected to formally enter a guilty plea to the charges in court on Thursday, Dec. 10.
Carol Jarvais of Skowhegan, president of the Maine chapter of the women’s clubs organization, said Tuesday that Walsh’s thefts had “a large impact” on the group, but declined further comment.
The embezzlement also had a significant impact on the planning commission, which essentially shut down for more than a year while it sorted through the fallout of Walsh’s embezzlement scheme. During that time, it rebuilt its accounting policies so that its books are reviewed monthly by two outside consultants, according to Jim Fisher, a former longtime employee of the commission who since last summer has served as chairman of its executive board.
Between Walsh’s termination, around the time of her May 16, 2019 arrest, and this past August, when it hired Jarod Farn-Guillette as its new executive director, the commission’s board continued to meet but the organization had no employees, Fisher said. Fisher, who now works as the town manager for Deer Isle, did some volunteer work for the commission, but it wasn’t much.
The commission was insured for employee malfeasance and was reimbursed $100,000 through its policy, which enabled it to hire Farn-Guillette, who had been working for the Washington County Council of Governments in Calais, Fisher said. But in the meantime, the commission’s revenues shrank considerably as Hancock County sharply cut its financial support, several towns decided not to renew their dues and the commission lost the contract work it had been doing for state agencies and other groups.
“The damage Sheri did is considerable,” Fisher said. “We were reduced to almost nothing. It’s going to take a long time to regain their trust.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story contained inaccurate information about the schedule of court proceedings in Walsh’s case.