Court clears bookkeeper

Six years after about $25,000 in town court funds was found to be unaccounted for, a mid-level state
PHOTOGRAPHER:

Six years after about $25,000 in town court funds was found to be unaccounted for, a mid-level state court on Thursday cleared former bookkeeper Michelle Parks of two convictions for felony falsifying of records involving about $740.

The ruling overturned a Sept. 20, 2006, Schoharie County Court jury verdict and County Judge George R. Bartlett III’s sentence.

“We agree with defendant’s contentions that the convictions are not supported by legally sufficient evidence and are against the weight of the credible evidence,” Judge Edward O. Spain of the Appellate Division, 3rd Department, wrote.

The five-judge court unanimously reversed Parks’ conviction and dismissed the indictment against her. The trial jury in 2006 acquitted Parks of four other charges.

The long-running investigation and trial attracted widespread local attention. Numerous supporters of Parks, 34, and co-defendant Danielle Croote, 29, spoke in defense of them or requested leniency for Parks.

After a six-day trial, the jury acquitted Croote of all charges in the joint six-count indictment against the Schoharie cousins and business colleagues.

“I think it’s wonderful,” local businesswoman Barbara Coons said of the appeals decision. Coons was among Parks’ supporters at the trial and during nine hours of jury deliberations over two days.

“She shouldn’t have been convicted in the first place. I think it’s great. Now she can get on with her life,” said Coons.

As part of Bartlett’s Jan. 3, 2007, sentence, Parks was restricted for five years from jobs directly handling finances, hindering her career as a bookkeeper.

For a time after the trial, Coons gave Parks a part-time job at the Sears store she operates in Cobleskill.

Bartlett also sentenced Parks to five years of probation, about $1,100 in restitution and fees and 420 hours of community service.

Neither Parks nor Croote could be reached Thursday.

“This is an extremely rare decision,” said J. Russell Langwig III, the Schoharie attorney who defended Parks during her six-day trial in September 2006.

“The appeals court rarely messes with a jury verdict,” Langwig said. “Reversals are usually due to legal technicalities, but this is not based on any legal technicality. It is a unanimous decision holding that the evidence in the case … was insufficient as a matter of law and that Michelle Parks should never have been convicted.”

Parks’ appeal was handled by Albany attorney Dennis B. Schlenker.

Langwig and attorney Sven Paul, who won the acquittal of Croote, argued throughout the trial that District Attorney James Sacket did not present any evidence showing that either Parks or Croote took any money or violated the law.

Both women worked at the time for Evening Star Bookkeeping, which handled the court finances as well as financial accounting for the town of Schoharie and other municipalities and local businesses.

Evening Star owner Eileen Lawton did not return a phone message Thursday, but Langwig said she told him “she lost a very valuable 15-year employee because of this.”

Langwig had harsh words for Sacket Thursday. He also said the court didn’t sufficiently protect Parks.

“This was an election-year indictment of two young women who, due to their status, were not as able to defend themselves as others [would be],” Langwig said.

Sacket was away Thursday, according to staff, and couldn’t be reached.

While saying he was glad Parks was vindicated, Langwig added, “I am saddened about the human costs that this ill-advised prosecution brought.”

The Appellate Division’s decision summarized the investigation of state comptroller’s office auditor Joseph Notro, who “revealed numerous irregularities in the handling of the court’s finances and accounting/bookkeeping practices, which were deemed ‘totally unsatisfactory.’ ”

In reversing the verdict and judgment “on the law and the facts,” Spain wrote that “the proof established at most [Parks’] opportunity to have accomplished this crime, but it did not establish her guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The state auditor’s investigation covered the period between Jan. 1, 2001, and March 11, 2002.

Most of the unaccounted-for money was from fines, bail and other fees under the administration of then-senior town Justice Thomas J. Woods. Woods retired in December 2001 and died the following June.

Other funds during the period were administered by current town Justice Frederick W. Kennedy Sr.

Where the money went, or even if it was actually missing, was never clearly decided during the trial.

Spain’s decision noted that while “Notro determined that approximately $25,000 received by the Justice Court during the audit period was ‘missing’ … it could not be accounted for in that no available records indicated that the funds had been deposited or reported as income in the court’s monthly reports to the comptroller.”

Trial testimony and investigations also indicated that the town justices delegated various reporting and money-handling responsibilities to the bookkeepers, and supervision of signature stamps and a cash box was lax.

During the trial, Schoharie Town Supervisor Martin Shrederis supported Parks’ work and said he didn’t believe the town court money was actually missing.

Shrederis could not be reached Thursday.

Categories: Schenectady County

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