A federal judge on Tuesday delayed the sentencing of a Spokane Valley woman who previously pleaded guilty to defrauding more than $88,000 from her former employer, Greater Spokane County Meals on Wheels.
Michelle S. Ferrell, 59, known by her co-workers as “Susan,” appeared Tuesday before U.S. District Court Judge Robert Whaley. But defense attorney Doug Phelps asked to delay the sentencing after learning Monday of a new dollar figure for the amount of stolen funds that could give a higher sentencing range for his client.
Whaley re-scheduled the sentencing to 10 a.m. Sept. 12. In doing so, he acknowledged the delay caused problems for several of the victims who came Tuesday to explain the impact Ferrell’s deception has on the organization.
“I find the injury on your employer was incredible,” Whaley said, referencing Greater Spokane County Meals on Wheels. “The manner in which it was done … shows it was premeditated. The trust that has been destroyed is not adequately taken into account for the guidelines of this offense. I intend to go above them.”
But in announcing his plans to sentence Ferrell to more prison time than federal guidelines, Whaley also said he wanted to make sure the defense had a chance to investigate whether a previous head injury may have caused a change in her character.
“I err on the side of sleeping at night,” Whaley told assistant U.S. attorneys Tyler Tornabene and Dan Fruchter.
Because Ferrell waived her right to appeal as part of the plea agreement, Whaley said any decision by him is final. “If I’m doing anything wrong, there is no remedy.”
As part of her plea, Ferrell admitted diverting donations made to the nonprofit organization, which provides meals to the elderly and needy to enrich herself.
Greater Spokane County Meals on Wheels is separate from and serves different clients than Meals on Wheels Spokane.
As part of her job as a bookkeeper, Ferrell had access to the county organization’s bank accounts, debit cards and payroll system. However, she used her access to those accounts to funnel Meals on Wheels money for her own personal expenses, including mortgage, utility and property tax payments, according to court records.
In addition, Ferrell also failed to properly file tax returns for the organization and falsified internal accounting records to reflect that the organization had paid the full amount.
Once officials with Greater Spokane County Meals on Wheels discovered the problems, they disclosed the fraud and ended up owing the Internal Revenue Service more than $120,000.
Dr. Helen Schmidt said she worked 24 years as a physician in Cameroon before coming home to donate her time to help the Spokane Valley-based charity.
“I don’t have a lot of money, but I am also a donor,” Schmidt said. “I wonder how much of my money went to someone else. It is very difficult to realize that someone could come into our organization … and tried to destroy it.”
Mark Lakowski said he worked about four years only about 20 feet away from the woman he knew as “Susan.”
“I wouldn’t trust her as far as I could spit,” Lakowski said. “She is a thief and a liar. I think the organization is in danger of survival.”
Grant Person, who sits on the board of Greater Spokane County Meals on Wheels, said he bought the organization a building and two vans to ensure it could carry out its mission.
But since Ferrell’s deception has come to light, the organization has struggled to bring in donations that it relies on to help those in need.
Ferrell’s “scheme to defraud Meals on Wheels is a travesty for all,” Person said.
Rick Waldt, another board member, told Whaley about how he and his wife donated their time last Christmas to deliver meals. Waldt said they stopped at the home of an elderly man, who used a walker and asked the couple to bring the food inside for him.
“He looked at me and said, ‘Thank God for you. I didn’t think I was going to eat today,’” Waldt said. “I just want to leave you with that.”
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