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Posted January 25, 2012 | comments 1 Comment

Area Agency on Aging fires back

Counterclaim denies owing former executive director money, repeats embezzlement accusations

By Joe Beck -- jbeck@nvdaily.com

FRONT ROYAL -- The Shenandoah Area Agency on Aging has answered an amended complaint filed against it by the agency's former executive director by denying that it owes her any money in accrued annual leave or sick leave as a result of her dismissal in early September.

The new filing by the agency's attorney, William Shmidheister III of Harrisonburg, denies Helen Cockrell's accusation that the agency's board of directors breached an employment contract with her when she was terminated amid disclosures of financial irregularities at SAAA.

The agency's counterclaim also repeats earlier accusations that Cockrell committed embezzlement by using SAAA money to pay for personal expenses and using "SAAA credit cards and lines of credit to pay for non-SAAA related travel, meals and other expenses, and used a car owned by SAAA as her personal car when it was to be used only for business-related purposes."

The counterclaim also contains an earlier allegation that Cockrell used two checks from SAAA for payment of bills "purportedly due to 'RLS Associates' when no money was due RLS Associates from SAAA."

Those checks, deposited into an account at BB&T bank controlled by Cockrell or her husband amounted to almost $8,000, according to SAAA's complaint.

The complaint asserts Cockrell "improperly obtained funds from SAAA" amounting to $10,000 to $20,000, and asks for $20,000 in compensatory damages, plus $50,000 in punitive damages as well as attorney's fees and costs.

A few days before the agency filed its answer and counterclaim on Jan. 19, Cockrell submitted an amended complaint that cut her demands for damages from the agency from $150,000 to $20,000. The $20,000 was only for accrued annual leave and sick leave.

In reducing the amount of money she is seeking, she also dropped a claim that the agency had wrongfully fired her. Her earlier complaint stated that her contract allowed her to be fired for only three reasons, none of which applied to those cited in the termination letter she received.

Cockrell's attorney, Robert J. Zelnick of Woodbridge, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Cockrell is under investigation by an auditing agency hired by the SAAA last year in the aftermath of disclosures of money management irregularities that plunged the agency into a financial crisis that it has been struggling to contain for months. The firm's tasks include looking for evidence that crimes were committed in the way money was handled at the agency.

State police also are investigating the agency's finances for possible criminal wrongdoing.

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