Clerk on trial for alleged theft
Prosecutors say the woman stole $3,200 from payments made by juvenile defendants to the county’s diversion program in 2013.
EVERETT — Her initials may have been on the paperwork, but that doesn’t prove that a former Snohomish County court clerk pocketed money meant for the county’s coffers, a public defender insisted Tuesday.
Plenty of people had access to and shared Sara Nelson’s computer in the Superior Court Clerk’s Office at Denney Juvenile Justice Center, the woman’s lawyer said. Investigators rushed to judgment, simply because Nelson’s initials appeared on receipts, public defender Donald Wackerman said in opening statements.
“That may be enough for a police officer or the folks at the clerk’s office, but it’s not enough to overcome the state’s burden,” he said.
Nelson, 39, is accused of stealing cash payments made by juvenile defendants to the county’s diversion program in 2013. She is charged with third-degree theft and three counts of misappropriation or falsification of accounts by a public officer. An audit uncovered more than 30 bogus transactions and some $3,200 missing from county accounts, according to charging papers.
Nelson has denied the allegations. Jurors heard from the first witnesses Tuesday.
“This is a case about a significant breach of public trust,” Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Matt Hunter told the jury.
Nelson was in financial trouble
in 2013, including a bankruptcy, he said.
Part of her job in the clerk’s office was to take cash payments from juveniles in the diversion program. The kids paid $100 to take classes that were required as part of their contract with probation. If they met the diversion program requirements, no criminal charges were filed.
Hunter told jurors that Nelson figured out a way to game the clerk’s computerized record-keeping system to cover her tracks as she pocketed these cash payments.
The paper trail, including receipts created in triplicate, showed the money had been collected and turned over to court clerks for recording and processing. The clerks sent the probation office printed sheets verifying that they’d processed the payments.
Nelson allegedly logged off the system before the payments were recorded in the clerk’s database. That meant no record was created about what happened to the money, jurors were told.
A discrepancy was first reported in September 2013 when a probation counselor tried to verify that a juvenile had paid his fee. The boy’s last name was misspelled on paperwork so a clerk supervisor used a receipt number to track down the payment. When the receipt number was queried it corresponded to $1 photocopy fee, not the juvenile’s payment.
A supervisor began to investigate, even inquiring of Nelson how it was possible to generate a verification sheet without the payment being permanently posted to the computer accounting system. Nelson allegedly showed the woman how to post the payment, print a verification sheet and back out of the transaction before hitting the “enter” key.
“Accordingly, no one was the wiser if a cash deposit transaction was not finalized,” Hunter wrote in court papers.
Jurors were told about three payments that were never posted in the system. Nelson allegedly generated the verification sheets for those three transactions, Hunter alleged.
Wackerman argued that the clerks filled in for each other throughout the day. The evidence, he said, will show that her co-workers used her computer when she was still logged in. The cops honed in on Nelson simply because her name was on the receipts. That’s not enough to prove that she’s responsible, Wackerman said.
Nelson also is accused of stealing $100 from a lock box in 2013.
As the investigation into the falsified transactions progressed, measures were put into place to more closely monitor the payments. One probation staff member was assigned to deposit cash in the clerk’s lock box. She emailed the supervisor in the clerk’s office any time she dropped money in the box.
The employee deposited $100 in the box after business hours Nov. 12, 2013. It was no longer in the box when a supervisor checked two days later. Hunter told jurors that Nelson was the cashier Nov. 13, 2013 and would have been tasked with emptying the lock box that afternoon.
More testimony expected Wednesday.
Diana Hefley: 425339-3463; hefley@ heraldnet.com. Twitter: @ dianahefley. is