Ex-SAAA director enters guilty plea

Deal requires community service hours, paying more than $10K

By Joe Beck

The former president and CEO of the Shenandoah Area Agency on Aging entered guilty pleas to three counts of embezzlement Tuesday in a case that left the agency finances in shambles for more than a year after her firing.

Helen Cockrell, 58, of Rileyville, refused to acknowledge personal guilt on two of the counts, which were entered as Alford pleas in Warren County Circuit Court. An Alford plea means the defendant admits that a jury may have convicted her, even as she continues to assert she did not commit the crime.

Under terms of the agreement, one felony count of embezzlement was dropped and two other felony counts will be reduced to misdemeanors after a year if she performs 200 hours of community service, pays SAAA $10,674 in restitution and adheres to good behavior. The reduction to misdemeanors would be accompanied by the imposition of a suspended jail sentence.

Judge Dennis L. Hupp ordered a pre-sentence report on a fourth count to which Cockrell entered a simple guilty plea. He scheduled a sentencing hearing for 1 p.m. Dec. 10.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Brian Madden described the embezzlement as essentially two offenses. One involved a line of a bank credit reserved for agency purposes and a phony invoice that was used as part of a scheme to shift money to Cockrell’s personal bank account.

The other offense was committed with a credit card that was also reserved for agency purposes but that Cockrell admitted she used to pay for a personal trip to New York City unrelated to SAAA. Madden pegged the value of the trip, which included tickets for a Broadway show, at more than $1,300.

SAAA provides services to low and moderate income seniors in Warren, Shenandoah, Clarke, Frederick and Page counties and Winchester. Its programs include Meals on Wheels, in-home assistance, respite care, transportation, and Medicare and Medicaid assistance.

Cindy Palmer, the interim president and CEO of SAAA, refused to comment on the case after the hearing. Phone calls to other staff members at the agency and a member of the board of directors were not returned.

Cockrell appeared in court with her attorney, Nancie Kie of Front Royal. Kie told Hupp that she believed the prosecution’s case against her client on the two Alford plea counts had several weaknesses.

Kie said much of the evidence against Cockrell came from online and other computer-based records, some of which involved an allegedly fake invoice from a Delaware-based company called RLS Associates.

“My client does not recall ever seeing an invoice for RLS, and she does not recall creating it,” Kie told Hupp.

SAAA actually owed no money to RLS, Madden said.

Kie added she also believed the prosecution’s witnesses may not have been credible and some evidence would not have been admissible.

Several people previously affiliated with SAAA sat on the side of the courtroom opposite Cockrell. Two of them, Judy Evans-Lambert and Betty Journell, said they hope to see Cockrell go to jail at the sentencing hearing. Lambert-Evans is a former director of the Winchester Senior Center. Journell was director of the Frederick County Senior Center for 27 years.

“Getting jail time will bring some justice,” Lambert-Evans said.

Journell said trust in the SAAA has been “depleted” among seniors in Frederick County since the scandal broke in September 2011 with the firings of Cockrell and two other agency executives.

“When they see this, it’s certainly not going to make anything better,” Journell said, referring to Cockrell’s pleas.

SAAA’s leadership issued an unsigned written statement in June that called the indictments against Cockrell “vindication in the eyes of the public that the agency as a whole and its board members were not involved in any criminal or wrongful activity.”

The statement added that, “despite past challenges, we feel the future viability of SAAA is intact.”

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