by Chris Braithwaite
BURLINGTON — Kim Brooks will serve 18 months in federal prison for embezzling more than $160,000 from her former employer in Orleans.
The 48-year-old Brownington woman was dismissed from her job at Desmarais Equipment in the spring of 2011 after an audit of the farm equipment dealer’s books revealed significant discrepancies.
She has since been an active volunteer with the Orleans County Fair, where she served on the board of directors.
Indeed, the thousands of hours Ms. Brooks donated to the fair were cited by two people who spoke on her behalf at her sentencing hearing in U.S. District Court here Monday.
Her attorney, David Sleigh, used their remarks as the basis of a request for a “downward departure” from federal sentencing guidelines that would have reduced her prison sentence to five months.
But Judge William Sessions was unmoved. His remarks suggested that the fact that Ms. Brooks is “obviously an extraordinarily intelligent person” who enjoyed her community’s respect made her crime all the more serious.
“How can someone who is so respected commit such a flagrant violation of trust?” the judge asked before he handed down the 18-month sentence. He said he would request that the sentence be served at a federal prison camp in Danbury, Connecticut, and ordered Ms. Brooks to surrender herself there on October 8.
Ms. Brooks was first cited to appear in state court in early 2012 following a State Police investigation. Her case moved to U.S. District Court after a federal grand jury issued a three-count indictment in October 2012.
Ms. Brooks pled guilty to one count after negotiating a plea agreement with federal prosecutors in late April this year.
Judge Sessions waived any fine, which could have been as high as $250,000. But as part of the plea agreement she was ordered to forfeit $11,885 to the government in a “preliminary order of forfeiture” issued by the court on Friday.
According to a press release from the U.S. Attorney’s office, Ms. Brooks must pay a total of about $163,000 in restitution. Judge Sessions ordered her Monday to give up 10 percent of her future gross income for that purpose.
That was one of several conditions of a three-year term of supervised release the judge added to her prison sentence. He also ordered Ms. Brooks to avoid work that involved any fiduciary responsibility.
The judge told Ms. Brooks he had considered several factors before passing sentence. None of them seemed to work out in her favor.
“What was most important in my assessment is the level of planning,” he said. “This is a case in which money was taken over three years,” he noted. “It was not some casual act. That level of calculation is extremely serious.”
Judge Sessions noted that Ms. Brooks had been working with a small company for 15 years, and knew that her embezzlement would make it impossible for her co-workers to get raises or bonuses.
“That’s a pretty flagrant violation of a person’s level of trust,” the judge remarked. “That you could go to work, knowing full well you have been stealing from them for years, is inconceivable to me,” he added.
Turning to deterrence, the judge said embezzlement cases have become so common in Vermont that “some have referred to it as an epidemic.”
“There needs to be a statement to the community that these violations of trust are treated seriously,” Judge Sessions said. “There needs to be a clear understanding by people who are in charge of other people’s money that to steal it is a serious crime.”
The brothers whose business was the victim of the crime, Rene and Roger Desmarais, both had a chance to speak to the court Monday.
“We were in business for 49 years and had a lot of good help — people you trusted,” Roger Desmarais said. “Apparently we had a silent partner we didn’t know anything about.”
He said the loss cut into the price the brothers got when they sold their business. “We weren’t showing the profit we should have been,” he said.
He recalled the day an accountant “figured out something was wrong,” and confronted Ms. Brooks.
“She said she had made some mistakes in life. She was as cool as could be,” Mr. Desmarais said.
Reading from a pre-sentence investigation that was not made public, Judge Sessions said that Rene Desmarais felt humiliated by the case, a feeling that was “fueled by her arrogant public behavior.”
After Ms. Brooks was caught, the judge asked Roger Desmarais, “was she acting in an arrogant way?”
“No,” Mr. Desmarais replied. “Kim was being Kim.”
“We considered her a real friend,” Rene Desmarais said when it was his turn to talk. He said the crime also affected 12 to 14 people who worked for the dealership. They got no raises for four or five years, he said. “At the end of the year there was no profit to distribute.”
The judge asked Rene Desmarais if Ms. Brooks was arrogant after her crime was revealed.
“If I was accused of doing what she did, there’s no way I would have flaunted myself,” Mr. Desmarais replied. “She goes on as if nothing ever happened.”
Judge Sessions established the fact that Ms. Brooks hadn’t paid any of the money back since her crime was discovered in early 2011.
Ms. Brooks’ attorney, David Sleigh, took responsibility for that. He routinely warned his clients against contacting their alleged victims before the criminal case was settled, he told the judge.
Two friends were in the courtroom to speak for Ms. Brooks.
Lori Royer said her friendship with the defendant went back to their high school days. “She did a lot for the fair,” Ms. Royer said. “She kept the harness racing alive and well.”
“She’s got a very kind heart,” Ms. Royer said of Ms. Brooks. “She’s a very good person.”
Judge Sessions asked if the two had talked about the criminal case.
No, Ms. Royer replied. “Rene’s my neighbor, Kim’s my friend, we just don’t talk about it.”
Randy Patenaude told the judge he had worked with Ms. Brooks at the fair, and that she had also cared for his mother, who suffered a serious stroke.
“Without her motivation, my mother would not be where she is now,” he said of Ms. Brooks’ care.
“Kim devoted thousands of hours to the Orleans County Fair,” Mr. Patenaude said, “not for any glorification or monetary gain.”
Mr. Sleigh did not argue that his client should not go to jail, but urged the court to shorten the term from the federal guideline of 18 to 24 months.
“Kim for years has given enormously to her community,” the attorney said. “It is hard to overestimate the importance of the Orleans County Fair to the community.”
“Little of the wrongful taking wound up as a benefit to Kim,” Mr. Sleigh added.
The judge pursued that issue. He noted that three checks involved in the crime had gone to her partner, for a total of close to $45,000.
“Where did that money go?” the judge demanded.
During a later exchange with Ms. Brooks, Judge Sessions said the three checks went to Harvey Cleveland, Ms. Brooks partner and, until he stepped down in July, president of the Orleans County Fair.
“What were they used for?” the judge asked.
“One, and a significant portion of another, was sent to Ohio to assist someone I knew,” Ms. Brooks replied.
According to the grand jury indictment, “$11,885 in proceeds from one of these unauthorized checks was used to purchase a used truck in Ohio.”
“One went to a young farmer who was trying to start up a business,” Ms. Brooks continued. “At the time I anticipated it was coming back,” she said of the money. “I found out that was not true. I never received any of the money back.”
Then Ms. Brooks turned to face the Desmarais brothers and their wives.
“I’m sorry I betrayed your trust,” she told them. “I’m sorry for losing your friendship. I will do everything I can to pay you back.”
contact Chris Braithwaite at firstname.lastname@example.org