A former Franklin County probation officer stands accused of stealing as much as $100,000 by taking cash from probationers and then concealing it by recording their payments as community service hours.
Jennifer Martina Brown, who worked as county probation officer from March 2009 until she was fired six weeks ago, faces felony charges of grand theft, tampering with physical evidence and official misconduct.
After a warrant for her arrest was issued last week out of the Apalachicola office of Assistant State Attorney Robin Myers, Brown turned herself in to the Gulf County Detention Facility in Port St. Joe on Sept. 18. She was released within a few hours after posting a $100,000 bond.
Rumors of Brown’s impending arrest had circulated throughout the county ever since she was fired Aug. 15 from Florida Probation Services, LLC, a private company contracted by the county to handle probation matters for those people convicted of misdemeanors.
Brown, 31, began her employment in March 2009 with Florida Probation Services’ predecessor, Judicial Correction Services. She was retained by Florida Probation Services in March 2012 when that firm was granted the contract with the county.
“I think this is a tragedy and I think it’s just a case of a theft by a person with no regard for others,” said Richard Stewart, a former Bay County commissioner who, together with Harold Bazzel, founded Florida Probation Services.
“To think she would take money from economically deprived people is just unbelievable to me,” said Stewart. “This is a slap in my face and a slap in the whole community’s face. I’m cooperating 110 percent to get this resolved.”
Brown is accused of grand theft above $20,000, a second degree felony that could get her as much as 15 years in prison, but an investigator with the state attorney’s office said Monday the theft amount was likely much more money.
“Conservatively, it was over $100,000 worth of community service hours,” said Johnny Turner, chief investigator among a crew assigned by William Meggs, state attorney for the Second Judicial Circuit, to track down probationers to obtain sworn recorded statements and copies of receipts of their payments, to get to the bottom of what Brown is alleged to have done.
Myers said the investigation is ongoing and that the theft charge could be amended to grand theft over $100,000 if the evidence warrants it. That crime is a first-degree felony with a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison.
“I don’t think anybody is ever going to be able to give you an exact amount of money.” Myers said.
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.
Based on interviews with Stewart, Turner and Myers, and a statement from Clerk of Courts Marcia Johnson, a picture emerges of Brown’s alleged scheme, how it eventually was detected and the painstaking work of tracking down probationers who unknowingly were taken advantage of.
In a written statement, Johnson said the Clerk of Court’s office discovered on Aug. 9 “an apparent discrepancy” while preparing a legislative report on the assessment and collection of court fines and costs.
Myers said the report was a new requirement, instituted by state officials who want to boost assessment and collections to better fund the court system with local dollars. The end-of-year report, due sometime before the fiscal year ends Sept. 30, grew out of a recent move by the Florida legislators to cut down on underassessments by local judges, Myers said.
Myers said that the deputy clerk assigned to prepare the report “noticed an awful lot of conversion to community service hours” in Brown’s paperwork. The deputy clerk “took it to Marcia (Johnson) and said ‘this looks strange to me’,” he said.
In Johnson’s statement, she said Florida Probation Service was notified within days, and Stewart recalled he was called Aug. 13 by Johnson herself. “She did make me aware she thought there might be a problem. She told me what she thought the problem was,” he said.
That call was no doubt difficult for Johnson, who is Brown’s aunt. Brown’s mother, Glenda Martina, supervises the Clerk of Courts’ criminal division office. No one interviewed, and none of the public records, have indicated either woman had any knowledge or connection with Brown’s alleged wrongdoing.
Johnson said her office “is currently conducting an audit of probation cases to determine what funds are due from Florida Probation Service. No employee of the Clerk’s Office is under suspicion of criminal activity or having any involvement in the actions of Florida Probation Service that have prompted the investigation.
“The Clerk of Court will continue to protect the interests of the public by operating in a manner that is subject to a high degree of financial, operating, and compliance oversight to provide transparency and accountability,” wrote Johnson.
Stewart said his staff called about 40-50 probationers on Aug. 13 and 14, and went to gather cash receipt books that were suspected of containing evidence of payments not recorded within the company’s system.
He said Brown routinely took cash payments from probationers, and rather than recording them properly, had indicated the individual had completed community service hours, which can be credited against an account at a rate of $10 per hour.
“She did a good job of keeping it balanced so we would never catch it,” said Stewart. “Jennifer took it upon herself to do it herself. She just bypassed the whole system.”
Stewart immediately hired Billy Rogers, former head of Gulf County’s probation office, to replace Brown the day she was fired, Aug. 15. He said the company has implemented a new system for handling all payment records.
“Nothing is turned in without a time sheet,” said Stewart. “Billy’s doing a fine job of getting everything squared away. He’s the right man for the job.”
Johnson said that after her office received the preliminary results of the internal audit, Chief Judge Charles Francis and County Judge Van Russell were notified and a report was filed with the State Attorney’s Office, which then began its investigation.
“Florida Probation Services acted immediately to correct its system of collecting and reporting probation fines and costs without an interruption of services to the probationers,” Johnson said.
No one in jail for non-payment
Stewart said his company went back to Feb. 2012 to review its list of probationers, and then sent out 240 letters to everyone who was on the conversion list since that time. All these names were turned over to Turner, who then set out to track down and confirm what each had paid and whether any actually performed community service hours.
“The first thing we did is we reviewed everybody that was in violation status for monetary status, where it was alleged they had not paid,” said Myers. “We made sure nobody was in jail for a failure to pay monetary violations. There were none.”
Turner said he took between 130 and 140 sworn recorded statements from probationers, who were not always easy to find. “These aren’t necessarily the kind of people who keep their contact information up to date,” he said.
Turner said they reviewed any documentation provided and compared individuals’ receipts to the probation cash file. “So far, out of 130-140 people, I found three that actually did community service hours in lieu of court costs and fines,” he said.
Turner said Russell told him that in his capacity as judge, he had approved “a very low number” of actual community service hours. The courts require a series of forms, including a financial affidavit, and approval by the judge, before fines and court costs can be worked off through community service.
Turner said the alleged wrongdoing may date back four years and involve more than 300 probationers, but that it mainly involved case in 2012 and 2013. “From January to July 2013, there were over 80 cases that were converted from court costs and fines,” he said. “In 2012 there was more than that. In 2009, 2010 and 2011, the numbers were low.”
On Sept. 13, a meeting was held with about three dozen of the current and former probationers to obtain further information, including any handwritten receipts that Brown may have written.
Not long after he assumed the probation officer position, Rogers discovered copies of these receipts in the shredder at the office, giving rise to the tampering with evidence charge. “It took us a week to empty the shredder when he (Rogers) noticed it was full,” said Stewart. “He noticed it was all shredded receipts, which were bagged immediately and taken to the state attorney’s office.”
Turner said the majority of the probationers affected were struggling financially to pay off everything from fines for oystering violations, to driving while license suspended, and other misdemeanors.
“She was taking advantage of some of the most vulnerable people in the county,” he said. “Many ones I’ve talked to and I’ve asked about receipts, they’ll tell me ‘I didn’t get a receipt, I trusted my probation officer. If you can’t trust your probation officer, who can you trust?’
Stewart said Brown “seemed to prey on either the people who were scared or a little bit slow in learning (the system).
“We trained in assisting, not intimidating them,” he said, adding that he hoped a paraplegic girl who was among those whose payments were wrongly recorded would be “the first one to testify” if the case comes to trial.
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.