Former Jackson County court administrator admits embezzlement

11/21/2013 3:04 PM

11/21/2013 11:43 PM

Jackson County’s former court administrator pleaded guilty Thursday to embezzling tens of thousands of dollars in court funds for her own use while serving as the court’s top nonjudicial official.

Teresa L. York, 58, waived indictment and pleaded guilty in federal court to one count of mail fraud. That charge involved a $41,000 check mailed in December 2011 to pay the court’s monthly credit card bill. A portion of that payment was for items that York had purchased for her own personal use.

But federal prosecutors said that over a three-year period starting in January 2009, York embezzled nearly $140,000.

“This is an extremely offensive violation of the public trust,” said Tammy Dickinson, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Missouri.

York’s crimes were made even more “reprehensible” because they occurred during a time of serious budget constraints and court employee layoffs, Dickinson said.

Jackson County court officials said in a written statement Thursday that an internal investigation first discovered “financial irregularities,” and that court staff spent “many hours” providing the FBI with evidence in the case.

“It is a sad day when a government official who was responsible for overseeing public funds commits a crime and violates the public’s trust; nevertheless, today justice has been done,” Jackson County Presiding Judge Marco A. Roldan said in the statement. “Ms. York will now be held accountable for her actions.”

In their breakdown of the thefts, prosecutors say $77,778 involved using court credit cards for personal items, including gift cards, gasoline, clothing and meals. York agreed in her plea deal to pay back that amount.

In addition, prosecutors say York embezzled more than $60,000 through a contract awarded to someone with whom she had a personal relationship. That work never was done, prosecutors say.

As part of Thursday’s plea agreement, York’s attorney will be free to argue at the sentencing that she actually took less. The loss amount will have a bearing on the sentence she could receive.

The charge carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. Dickinson said prosecutors would seek a “significant” prison term.

York was allowed Thursday to remain free until her sentencing hearing, which will be set later. As a condition of her personal recognizance bond, she was prohibited from gambling, entering any gambling establishments or traveling outside the immediate Kansas City area.

Dickinson announced the plea at a news conference where the FBI also announced a new phone hotline and email address to report suspected public corruption.

Public corruption is a crime “that happens in the shadows” and can happen anywhere, said Michael Kaste, special agent in charge of the FBI office in Kansas City.

“Everyone is a victim of public corruption,” Kaste said.

The number is 1-855-KCPCTIP. The email address is kcpctip@ic.fbi.gov. Callers do not have to provide their names.

“If someone has information about potential wrongdoing by a public official or law enforcement officer, I encourage you to contact this newly established number or email,” Kaste said.

The York investigation began in the spring of 2012, when Jackson County officials discovered what they said at the time were “concerns regarding the expenditure of court funds.”

York, who was earning an annual salary of more than $109,000 at the time, was placed on administrative leave in June 2012. She resigned the next month.

After an internal investigation, Jackson County court officials announced in August 2012 that they had “confirmed the initial concerns which led to the investigation.”

The court’s top judge at the time said in a written statement: “The court depended on Teresa York for many years to manage court functions and funds professionally and ethically, and we have been taken aback in the past few weeks to find that our trust was misplaced.”

York, who has a law degree and had worked at the courthouse since 1984, was named court administrator in 2003. As administrator, she was responsible for overseeing several hundred court employees.

She also was responsible for managing the court’s nonjudicial functions, including human resources, records systems and information and technology.

York was the court administrator in 2007 when a court purchasing clerk was charged with stealing more than $200,000 worth of computers and electronic equipment.

At that time, York said it was the worst violation of trust she had seen in her courthouse experience.

In the allegations outlined against York, federal prosecutors said York used court credit cards to purchase $46,000 in computers and equipment never used by the court system. They also detailed the purchase of more than $35,000 in gift cards. About $6,000 worth of the cards were given to court employees as part of a bonus program. The rest, York kept for herself, according to the allegations.

Other personal purchases included $2,200 for gasoline, $9,500 for purchases on Amazon, $8,300 for meals, $6,400 for items such as clothing and makeup, and $487 in postage stamps.

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