By Joe Beck
Years of financial scandal at the Shenandoah Area Agency on Aging came to an end Friday with the sentencing of former executive director Helen Cockrell to six years probation and three months of home confinement.
Judge Dennis L. Hupp also sentenced Cockrell to 1,000 hours of community service -- at least 300 hours a year -- in addition to the more than 350 hours of community service she has already performed at one agency by the estimate of her attorney, Nancie Kie.
Hupp reduced two convictions for felony embezzlement to misdemeanors as a result of Cockrell fulfilling the terms of a plea agreement she made almost a year ago on the same two charges. The agreement required 200 hours of community service and $10,674 in restitution, which Cockrell has paid.
"She's trying to regain the trust of the community, and she's trying to do that day by day by day," Kie said of her client.
Cockrell apologized for her actions after hearing Commonwealth's Attorney Brian Madden describe her as "arrogant" and lacking remorse.
"I harmed those I was charged with serving," Cockrell said. "I apologize to the seniors that were hurt by my actions, and I hope they will find it in their hearts to forgive me."
The case against Cockrell included evidence that she used a line of bank credit reserved for agency purposes and an invalid invoice that was used to move money to her personal bank account.
Another offense involved use of an agency credit card that paid for a personal trip to New York City with her daughter.
The hearing drew about 10 people with current or past ties to the SAAA. The agency operates a variety of programs in Frederick, Warren, Clarke, Shenandoah and Page counties and Winchester designed to allow the elderly to remain in their homes and stay out of long term care facilities.
Several of those affiliated with SAAA criticized the sentence in remarks after the hearing.
Sonia Schelin, a former agency employee, said she believed a jail sentence of about six months would have been appropriate.
"It's like a tap on the wrist," Schelin said of sentence. "Really, what kind of message is that for people in her capacity?"
Wanda Shoemaker, a member of the SAAA Board of Directors, said she could tell "something was wrong" with the way the agency's finances were being managed in the months leading up to Cockrell's firing in September 2011.
"It was definitely too easy a sentence," Shoemaker said.
Marsha LeBrecht, the agency's director of human resources, testified that the discovery of Cockrell's embezzlement and the financial and personnel turmoil that ensued took a heavy toll on the agency.
Many members of the staff and Board of Directors quit and those who remained struggled to cope with doubts about the agency's survival, and cuts in services, pay and benefits. LeBrecht said several agency clients died while on waiting lists for services.
"Several staff had heart attacks at work," LeBrecht said. "It was horrible."
"Are you saying embezzlement caused all this?" Hupp asked.
"I do," LeBrecht said.
Clarke County Sheriff Anthony Roper, who served on SAAA's Board of Directors from 2008 until 2012, testified the board learned that hundreds of dollars of checks made out to vendors remained in agency drawers and were not being sent to them.
"There was a tremendous cash flow problem," Roper said of the agency's finances.
When pressed by Hupp as to whether the agency's financial troubles could be blamed on Cockrell's conduct, Roper replied, "I'm not sure, quite honestly, that the commonwealth was able to meet the burden to make those charges."
Madden argued that Cockrell be sentenced to more than the state guidelines for embezzlement and called for her to be sent to prison. Madden called the case different from most other embezzlement offenses that typically involve low paid clerks stealing money out of store cash registers.
Cockrell's crimes affected the ability of SAAA to help poor, vulnerable senior citizens, Madden said.
"We don't see any indication of remorse," Madden said of Cockrell. "In fact, as far as we're concerned, the defendant has exercised quite a bit of arrogance."
Hupp cited Cockrell's long record of military service and the absence of any previous offenses as factors working in her favor in his sentencing decision. He also referred to a similar case in Shenandoah County a few years ago that involved the theft of larger sums of money.
Hupp told Cockrell she could leave her residence during her term of home confinement to go to work, perform community service, attend church and attend her wedding, which is to be held within a few months.
Her sentence also included six years in prison, all of them suspended.
Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or firstname.lastname@example.org