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Posted April 9, 2013 | comments Leave a comment

Judge sets bail, hearing date for ex-SAAA boss facing embezzlement charges

Former employees, volunteers say they want to see justice done

By Joe Beck

FRONT ROYAL - Former employees and volunteers of the Shenandoah Area Agency on Aging gathered in a Warren County courtroom Tuesday for something they had waited years to see: their former boss, Helen Cockrell, answering charges accusing her of embezzling the agency's money.

They filed out of the courtroom, about a dozen of them, after Circuit Judge Dennis L. Hupp set a $10,000 unsecured bond as Cockrell's bail and scheduled the next hearing for 9 a.m. June 4.

Many of those who spoke invoked the word "justice'' in describing their hopes for the case. They also said they either quit, were forced out of the agency or were fired after conflicts with Cockrell during her tenure as executive director.

Betty Journell said she worked at the agency for 27 years before her dismissal.

"I want to see justice done," Journell said. "If she is guilty of what she is accused of, she hurt so many of our most vulnerable people. This is what justice needs to be done for."

Sue Pullen said she was fired from her job as director of the Page County senior center about seven years ago after questioning Cockrell over management issues.

"I worked my butt off," Pullen said of her approach to her job before her termination.

Front Royal attorney Daryl Funk represented Cockrell, who walked from the back of the courtroom to the defendants' table. Funk said he was only filling in for Nancie Kie, who will be Cockrell's regular attorney. Neither Funk nor Cockrell had any comment as they left the courthouse for processing at the Warren County jail.

Kie could not be reached for comment.

Cockrell appeared in court after she was indicted last week on four counts of embezzlement. The indictments came after the Virginia State Police launched an investigation into the agency's finances early last year. The state police investigation was preceded by investigations by the state's Department for the Aging and a Winchester auditing firm hired by SAAA's board of directors.

The accusations in the indictments stem from a financial crisis that erupted at the agency in late summer 2011 after some staff members discovered tens of thousands of dollars of checks had gone unmailed to recipients over a period of several months.

Cockrell, Ann T. McIntyre and Jim Shaffer, the agency's finance director, were all fired in early September 2011 after the board learned of the unmailed checks.

A lawsuit by Cockrell challenging the agency's handling of her firing was answered by the agency in a counterclaim that accused her of fraud and embezzlement. The counterclaim cited falsified bills paid from two checks drawn on a $200,000 line of agency bank credit as one of several examples of alleged impropriety.

Cockrell and the SAAA have since settled their lawsuit.

In the meantime, agency leaders have insisted SAAA is recovering from the financial crisis that at one time forced staff reductions, pay cuts and other sacrifices on the remaining employees.

One former employee, who did not give her name, said after Tuesday's hearing that board members knew of widespread concerns among staff members about Cockrell's management practices well before the unmailed checks came to light.

"In my personal opinion, she had them under a cloud," the former employee said of Cockrell and her relationship with the board.

The former employee said she quit after Cockrell had threatened to fire her several times for asking too many questions about agency management.

John Hudson, the current board chairman, did not return a phone call seeking comment on the former employee's statement.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com

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