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.

The Daily Herald - - FRONT PAGE - By Diana He­fley Her­ald Writer

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

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