In a few weeks, Julie Brown, the city of Durango’s former finance director, will appear in district court again, this time for a final reconsideration of her sentence for embezzling more than $700,000 from the city over an 11-year period.
The Durango Herald’s Shannon Mullane has covered the story in depth, and her reporting informs this editorial.
Brown worked in city finance for more than 17 years before resigning in October 2019 amid allegations of the fraud, which was brought to light by a city employee.
In November 2020, Brown, then 51, pleaded guilty to two felony charges: embezzlement of public property and theft of $100,000 or more but less than $1 million.
She was sentenced Jan. 8 by District Judge William Herringer to five years in prison on the theft charge and three years for the embezzlement charge. If she is imprisoned, the time for the two convictions will run concurrently for a total of five years. In addition, the court sentenced her to spend three years on mandatory parole.
Brown was also ordered to pay restitution of $712,000 to the city.
Brown’s embezzlement scheme was clever and fairly simple. Her father-in-law once had a business, Animas Professionals, which he thought had been shut down. Brown created fraudulent invoices to the city from that business, checks were written to the business and she deposited them in her own personal account. The checks were written for relatively small amounts, staying under the $10,000 red-flag mark at which banks must report deposits to the federal government.
It’s obvious the city’s financial oversight was inadequate. It’s safe to say City Manager José Madrigal, hired in August 2020, has his eye on city coffers to a degree previous staff members did not.
At Brown’s sentencing, Herringer said he would postpone sending her to prison and reconsider reducing her jail time to probation at the May hearing if she showed good faith in making restitution. Brown since has made a restitution payment of $249,811.
Assuming she cannot pay the balance before the May 14 hearing, what happens next? The judge can let her sentence stand and send her to prison to start serving her time, or he could offer her probation, with conditions (such as a length of time over which she could repay the balance of restitution).
If Brown’s sentence is left as is, one possible outcome is she would serve one year in prison and then could be eligible to serve another 18 months in a community corrections setting such as Hilltop House – and be done with her five-year sentence in half that time.
Many people knew and cared for Brown in the 17 years she worked for the city. Many of them likely feel betrayed by her behavior. Many may feel she deserves a second chance.
But others believe she should go to prison, as city councilors told the judge at sentencing. Brown’s actions weren’t a one-time failure of judgment, the desperate act of a person about to lose their home or caught in a substance-abuse cycle. This was willful unethical conduct over a very long time by a person trusted to manage taxpayer money – conduct that might still be going on if a staff member hadn’t taken the risk of coming forward.
Brown violated the public trust; she stole from everyone in Durango.
We are not privy to all information pertinent to this case. We must trust Herringer is and will make a wise, just decision.
We look forward to the denouement of this sordid tale of our city.