OLIVET — During Monday’s sentencing, former Tripp finance officer Jennifer Friederich couldn’t explain why she embezzled more than $500,000 from her hometown over seven years.
She addressed Circuit Judge Patrick Smith during the proceedings in the Hutchinson County courtroom. Some of the 40-50 spectators were her family members, while others were among Tripp’s 630 residents.
“I don’t know why I did this, and I didn’t know how to stop,” she said. “One cover-up led to another. I just blocked it all out, that part of it.”
Smith sentenced the defendant to three years in the state women’s prison in Pierre. She was given this week to take care of personal matters and will begin serving her sentence Friday.
Friederich pleaded guilty to three charges: embezzlement of property received in trust, a Class 3 felony, as well as forgery and destruction or impairment of public records, both Class 5 felonies. The three charges carried a combined maximum sentence of 25 years in prison.
Friederich was sentenced to three years on each count, but the sentences run concurrently, or at the same time.
Hutchinson County State’s Attorney Glenn Roth agreed to concurrent sentences if Friederich made restitution, which she did prior to Monday’s sentencing. She has repaid the city with a loan taken out by her father with her also signing for the loan.
In addition, the judge didn’t impose a fine because of the full restitution.
Friederich could serve as little as nine months in prison, Smith said.
“Because you’re a non-violent offender, you can serve 25 percent of your sentence and become eligible for parole,” the judge said. “I don’t see, with your present situation, that you should have a problem getting parole. You could be out of prison in less than a year.”
Friederich had sought leniency in order to care for her elderly parents and her two children. The judge said he took those factors into consideration, as well as the impact of her crime on Tripp residents.
“This is a non-violent crime, and my first inclination is to pass a light sentence, but I also see what happened to the community,” the judge said. “I look at the amount of theft and the betrayal of their trust.”
Defense attorney Mike Butler of Sioux Falls had asked the judge to consider whether a prison sentence would serve any useful purpose and instead would harm all parties.
South Dakota provides latitude in sentencing, Butler said, asking for alternatives such as house arrest or electronic monitoring.
At the outset of the sentencing hearing, Butler raised objections to a petition circulated by an unnamed person which contained what he called inaccuracies desired to harm his client. He questioned whether the petitioners’ feelings were relevant to the case.
Roth countered that the petition and other correspondence reflected the strong feelings of at least some Tripp residents toward Friederich and her criminal actions.
Smith said he wouldn’t admit the petition as fact in the case but would consider it a show of the community’s feelings, which he said did carry relevance.
In addition, Smith credited Friederich for making restitution but didn’t make it the overriding factor in his sentencing decision. Other defendants don’t have the advantage of a benefactor to make immediate restitution, the judge added.
He also took into account deterrence, punishment, rehabilitation and the message sent by the sentence.
Regardless of his sentence, Smith said Tripp residents will continue to scrutinize Friederich even after she returns to society. “You’re under the watchful eye of the entire community,” he told her.
FOLLOWING THE MONEY TRAIL
Friederich’s theft from 2011-2018 was discovered by a routine audit. A special review investigated the level of losses and her dealings with city finances.
The amount of stolen money was $517,385.38 and the audit costs were $38,374.35 for a total of $555,759.73, Roth said. The embezzlement figure represented an agreed amount among the parties. The total sum will likely never be known, as records don’t exist for the earlier years of her time in office.
Friederich told authorities that the embezzlement started in 2011, Roth said. She later told the South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) she didn’t know when her actions started.
Friederich started working for the City of Tripp in July 2003, eight years before the earliest records could be found for the embezzlement, Roth said.
“The state auditor said he went back as far as he could,” he said. “This will always be a mystery for the community. The City of Tripp will never know how much she embezzled. It’s disturbing because there are no records besides what she told the DCI.”
Friederich made full restitution, but the repayment wasn’t enough to make everything right, the judge ruled.
Friederich used a number of methods to divert funds, to make inappropriate charges and to alter bank statements and other internal documents.
The city’s financial issues were discovered during a routine audit. The special review covered the period between Nov. 23, 2011, and Dec. 31, 2018.
The special review revealed that she received nearly $133,000 in excess of authorized pay. In addition, she ran up nearly $250,000 for total inappropriate charges to the city’s credit card using bank card checks, including convenience check fees and interest on cash advances.
Other findings revealed nearly $19,000 for total inappropriate payments to credit card accounts not related to the City of Tripp. Another $6,500 came from suspect charges made to the city’s credit card and nearly $5,700 for potentially inappropriate payments to wireless phone services.
In addition, Friederich provided altered bank statements and accounting records to the Department of Legislative Audit (DLA). Also, an indeterminable amount of potential cash was not deposited in the city’s bank account.
The DCI investigation discovered Friederich had committed forgery. The audit found a significant difference between cash amounts deposited in the city’s bank account when Friederich was employed and after she resigned.
ASKING FOR LENIENCY
Friederich’s sister, Jessica Kuhlman, took the stand and sobbed as she described Friederich’s care for their 80-year-old father and 70-year-old mother. Friederich transports her mother to dialysis three times a week and provides caregiving for both parents, ranging from providing meals to arranging medical appointments and administering medications on a timely basis.
Friederich’s care has meant their mother can remain at home rather than re-enter a nursing home, Kuhlman said. Other family members are unable to offer much assistance because of work and family commitments, she added.
In addition, Friederich helps with livestock on the parents’ farm, handles their insurance and holds a power of attorney, Kuhlman said.
Besides caring for their parents, Friederich also holds primary custody of her children and raises them. “She has a really good relationship with her children. I feel it’s very important she (remain) with them and that they have their mom,” Kuhlman said.
Roth countered that other family members or home health care could tend to Friederich’s parents while she served a sentence.
“She is a caretaker, but every criminal case has involved the family and the topic of care,” he said. “It can be children or parents as well. There is no difference.”
Butler objected to what he called the characterization of Friederich’s situation as a “garden-variety case” that routinely occurs. The defense attorney said his client provides crucial care for her parents, and they have come to depend greatly on her.
Butler added that, from the moment she was confronted with the discrepancies, Friederich gave her full cooperation to authorities and has made restitution.
Roth asked the court not to forget the victims in the case — Tripp residents who had their trust betrayed and their taxes stolen for someone’s personal use over several years.
Friederich showed no signs of stopping her theft, which ended only with the audit and special review, Roth said.
“I have encountered these cases, as a state’s attorney, these embezzlement cases, and they have a common thread. Those who are charged don’t quit embezzlement until they are caught,” he said. “It’s like an addict who goes on and on doing it. As long as they get away with it, they’ll continue to do it.
With her embezzlement, Friederich betrayed Tripp in a financial sense, Roth said. According to one media source, Tripp’s revenue budgets for fiscal years 2018 and 2019 totaled $729,000 and $742,000, respectively. The $517,000 in embezzlement would have amounted to about 70 percent of the city’s total revenue for one year.
Because of the stolen funds, the city went without needs such as street repairs, Roth said.
“From 2011 on, this is money that could be used for infrastructure, for helping with the community and its economy,” he said. “(The city) needed things for their quality of life.”
In making her statement, Friederich described herself as a good person and loving daughter and mother who went down a wrong path, which makes the embezzlement so hard for her to explain. She said the crime doesn’t define her as a person.
“There’s nothing much I can do to undo what I have done to the City of Tripp and to my family and friends,” she said, sobbing.
Friederich said she realized the hard feelings of many Tripp residents toward her.
“I understand there are community members who don’t want to hear an explanation,” she said. “I betrayed the trust of my community, and for that, I’m deeply sorry. I intend to work hard to regain the trust that I have broken.”
In closing, Smith said he held concerns about granting this week before Friederich is taken into custody and transported to prison.
“I don’t see you as a flight risk, but the hardest time a person faces is from the time they are told the sentence and when they (start serving) it,” the judge said. “I’m concerned about your well-being and your mental health if you have until Friday. I see you are well-steeled, and you are seeing a counselor.”
Butler indicated he didn’t share the same concerns and thought Friederich did not represent a harm to herself.
Smith granted the week’s delay in entering prison but encouraged Friederich to use any and all resources if she encounters problems dealing with her situation.
“Please, if you need help, ask for it,” the judge said.
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