TYNDALL — At her sentencing Tuesday, Ashlea Pruss was told her nearly $40,000 embezzlement took away things that could never be repaid.
The former Springfield city finance officer had pleaded guilty to grand theft, a Class 4 felony, for stealing between $5,000-100,000. At the sentencing, officials revealed an audit determined — to the best of its ability — that she stole $38,189.93 during a two-year period.
Circuit Judge Cheryle Gering ordered 60 days in jail, another 90 days of waivable jail time, 10 years of probation and a suspended 10-year sentence in the state penitentiary.
In addition, Pruss must make full restitution, write a court-approved letter of apology and pay a $2,500 fine and additional court costs and witness fees.
But some things can’t be made right by the court, Gering said.
“The court acknowledges your statement of apology today. It’s up to the city and individuals to make their own decisions on how to respond to that apology,” she told Pruss. “For many people, it may never be made right. It’s something you have to live with and I can’t control. You need to understand the impact of your actions on the future.”
Pruss was immediately remanded to the custody of the Bon Homme County sheriff’s office. The Bon Homme County jail doesn’t house female prisoners, so Pruss was transported to the Yankton County jail, which offers a suitable facility.
In passing her sentence, Gering said she weighed several factors. She acknowledged letters received by the court, including those supporting Pruss and asking for leniency.
However, Gering said she also must take justice into account. “It’s not my role to forgive crimes. My role is to protect communities,” she said.
Gering said she also wanted to send a strong message to others who may be tempted to embezzle or otherwise violate public trust. “I want to deter them from taking the same wrong steps you took,” the judge said.
Pruss not only took public funds for her personal use but also inflicted tremendous damage because of the burden placed on the South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI), the court system and the City of Springfield, Gering said.
“I received letters of support (for Pruss), but I also looked at the city describing the amount of time and effort it took to uncover the things you did, and there are still some concerns that things you did may never be known,” the judge said. “The hundreds of hours the (pre-sentence investigation) and DCI did to uncover this is an understatement.”
The uses of the embezzled funds are as disturbing as the theft itself, Gering said. Pruss spent city money on candy, beer, cigarettes, soft drinks, cosmetics, perfume, clothing, shoes, dog treats, movies, hotels and other lodging, concerts, cell phones and gifts for others.
“This was fun money,” the judge told Pruss “It snowballed. During the last 2½ months of 2016, you spent $1,500. In 2017, it was 10 times that amount. In 2018, you continued to increase your spending, and you became more brazen.”
Pruss continued spending Springfield funds even as she left her job, Gering said. The judge noted Pruss used the city’s funds to cover expenses for a job interview and even moving expenses to her new job in Spearfish, hundreds of miles across the state.
“You had no fear of being caught and (took advantage) up to the last minute, as long as you could,” the judge said.
The city should have had safeguards, which would have caught Pruss sooner, Gering said. However, it didn’t excuse her hundreds of criminal act for each time she used the debit card or sought reimbursement for things the city already paid, the judge added
Pruss even deleted her water account so she wouldn’t have to pay the monthly bill, Gering said. “You took advantage in that role (of city finance officer) in ways no one should ever do,” the judge said.
Gering said the long history of theft wasn’t a “mistake.” The fact that Pruss didn’t exhibit a drug, alcohol or gambling problem was a positive, but it raised even more questions on why she continued stealing from the city, the judge said.
“I’m also concerned that you were less than forthright in your initial interview with the DCI,” Gering said. “In December 2018, early in the process, I don’t believe you were honest with them.”
THE DEFENDANT SPEAKS
Prior to sentencing, Pruss addressed the court and sobbed as she described the way in she took advantage of public funds.
“Words can’t describe the pain and heartache of those who trusted me,” she said. “I didn’t open the debit card (with bad intentions). I discussed this with co-workers, and it would be for things like gas. But I took advantage of it and I take full responsibility.”
Pruss said she has led a clean life for the most part, and she asked for the chance to make things right and to rebuild her life. “I’m a good person with a big heart,” she said.
She made assurances that the embezzlement wouldn’t happen again.
“I have to live with these horrible decisions for the rest of my life, and it will affect me forever,” she said. “I’m sorry I broke my trust, and I hope someday you can forgive me.”
THE PROSECUTION SPEAKS
Bon Homme County State’s Attorney Lisa Rothschadl called embezzlement “the most dishonest crime in the code book.” She contrasted it with a thief who broke into a home and stole a television set, leaving immediately and possibly never knowing the victim.
“But with embezzlement, the person has to work toward the reward,” she said. “Generally speaking, embezzlement is not a quick crime. It takes months and years. She worked for the city. She earned the trust of the city council, most of the city employees and the residents.”
Pruss also worked with the ambulance service, which put her in another position of trust, Rothschadl noted.
The court received letters of commendation saying Pruss did a great job in that position and saved Springfield’s ambulance, which had a large impact on the small town, the state’s attorney said.
“But if she wasn’t in her position with the ambulance, I don’t think we would be here today,” Rothschadl said, indicating Pruss’ embezzlement more than offset any benefits from her work with the ambulance service.
In October 2016, Pruss received a debit card to pay for ambulance expenses, Rothschadl said. While the defendant said she never intended to use the debit card for personal expenses, she had spent $1,781 on the debit card within three month with nearly none of it related to the ambulance.
Rothschadl described a number of Pruss’ illegal actions.
Pruss used the debit card to pay for meals at ambulance training and then submitted a voucher to the city for reimbursement of meals already paid. In another instance, Pruss booked a hotel room for a meeting no one attended, cancelled the room and submitted a $600 claim to the city using only the print-out of the email confirmation for the room.
“That takes a lot of nerve. It takes a lot of guts,” Rothschadl said. “But then, things became ‘hot’ when her scheme was being exposed.”
In October 2018, Pruss sent an email to accountant Walt Schoenfish when he tried to schedule an audit of the city books. In the email, Pruss said her husband had suffered numerous injuries — even listing about a half-dozen specific items — and the audit needed to be delayed while she cared to her husband’s needs.
“(Pruss) said he suffered those injuries in a car accident in Minnesota. But that was a lie, all made up. There was no car accident,” Rothschadl said.
Another time, Pruss charged $150 in clothes at Maurice’s department store in Norfolk, Nebraska. When the DCI questioned her about it, she told the agent she had to stop and buy clean clothes after a transport with the ambulance crew where she got blood on herself.
“But a check with the Springfield ambulance showed no transport to Norfolk. Did she think we wouldn’t check it out or that there were records?” Rothschadl asked. “Her role as an EMT was so important to her so that she would be in charge and have access to funds she normally wouldn’t have.”
Rothschadl argued for jail time and lengthy probation, adding Pruss had already moved to Spearfish and would likely receive assistance in making restitution.
“If she receives a suspended imposition of sentence and if she fulfills her obligation, there’s nothing to stop her from victimizing other municipalities, ambulances and counties,” the state’s attorney said.
Even making full restitution, Pruss took advantage of the City of Springfield for her personal gain, Rothschadl said. “They loaned the defendant $40,000 for two years, interest-free,” the state’s attorney said.
THE DEFENSE RESPONDS
Defense attorney Richard Rylance said his client could be seen from two perspectives.
“She could be seen as a good person who had done wrong for 2½ years,” he said. “Others would like to make her out as a person who was unaware or unremorseful, which is disingenuous to her.”
Rylance said he has gotten to know Pruss and sees her as truly remorseful. He pointed to her guilty plea as taking responsibility, and he noted she initially sent an apology letter to city employees.
Pruss has already begun the restitution process by cashing in her retirement policy and securing loans, Rylance said. She will repay the City of Springfield and make things whole, but she also needs the freedom to continue working so she can repay the city, he added.
Pruss has already paid a price by losing three jobs because of the embezzlement charges, Rylance said. At her current job, she is reminded every day of the consequences of her actions and the need to repay the money.
Pruss comes from Springfield, and she knows she has hurt her hometown, Rylance said. In addition, she has hurt family members, including her children, who must face the town’s residents.
“She is a good person who did a bad thing. She will not do it again. To say this has reshaped her life is an understatement,” Rylance said.
After the sentencing, Pruss was taken immediately into custody. She holds the right to appeal the sentence to the South Dakota Supreme Court within 30 days.
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