A hearing last week in the case of a former Franklin County probation officer who stands accused of pocketing payments from probationers by recording them as community service hours showed the case is more complicated, and more extensive, than first thought.
Jennifer Martina Brown, who worked as county probation officer from March 2009 until she was fired in August 2013, sat quietly as her lawyer, Jay Gordon Shuler, and prosecuting attorney Willie Meggs hashed out details Aug. 21 before Circuit Judge William Gary, who is presiding over the case.
“We’re ready to resolve this case, but we understand Willie Meggs needs to finish the work he’s doing,” said Shuler.
Meggs said investigators believe the possible scale of Brown’s alleged wrongdoing has grown considerably since she was charged last year with grand theft, tampering with physical evidence, official misconduct, and racketeering.
“We need to know how much was taken and what damage was done,” he said. “We feel like we have to continue on with this case. We need to tell the public the depth of the harm done in this case.”
Meggs said his office’s auditors, with help from Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater’s department, have so far collected enough evidence from bank and court records that they say could prove at least $190,000 was taken.
He said investigators must comb through 12 separate bank accounts, and talk with hundreds more people, as they “follow the money.” Meggs estimated the final amount diverted from Brown’s employer, Florida Probation Services, LLC, and the county and state, could be “close to $300,000.”
Meggs said his office was able to recover receipt books “not part of normal operations,” that were shredded, and his staff is working on reconstructing them.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever looked at (shredded documents),” he told Gary.
“No, I haven’t,” replied the judge.
“It’s not fun,” said Meggs.
The prosecutor gave “a definite maybe” when asked by the judge whether three months would be enough time before the case could be scheduled for trial.
“I am 73 and I’m not going to be around forever,” said Gary, who used to sit on the circuit court bench in Franklin County before retiring a few years ago.
“Another option is to kick it back over to (Circuit) Judge (Jackie) Fulford,” he said.
Brown, 32, began her employment in March 2009 with Judicial Correction Services, and was retained by Florida Probation Services in March 2012 when that new firm was granted the contract with the county.
The charge of grand theft above $100,000 is a first-degree felony that could get Brown as much as 30 years in prison. The two other charges against Brown, official misconduct and tampering with physical evidence, are each third-degree felonies, which carry a five-year maximum sentence. The official misconduct charge is connected to filing false reports as a county probation officer, and the tampering with physical evidence stems from the allegation she shredded receipts prior to her firing.
Brown’s alleged scheme enabled her to routinely take cash payments from probationers, and rather than recording them properly, indicate the individual had completed community service hours, which can be credited against an account at a rate of $10 per hour.
Johnny Turner, an investigator with the prosecutor’s office who attended last week’s hearing, has said no probationers were denied fulfillment of their obligations as a result of the scheme, and none were jailed as a result. He said only a very small percentage of probationers ever performed community service hours, and that while the alleged wrongdoing may date back five years, it mainly involved cases in 2012 and 2013.
Turner has asked that any county probationers over the last four years who have questions about their case records to call the state attorney’s office at 653-8181 for assistance.