A federal judge on Thursday sentenced a former Greater Spokane County Meals on Wheels bookkeeper to three years in federal prison, which was more prison time than prosecutors had sought.
U.S. District Court Judge Robert Whaley sentenced Michelle “Susan” Ferrell, 59, of Spokane Valley, to the prison term after she was caught funneling organization funds to her own account to help pay for Spokane Valley property that she and her husband planned to sell to fund their retirement in Hawaii.
“You didn’t take money from a large corporation,” Whaley told Ferrell. “You took from an organization that does a great public service.”
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. 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.
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. As soon as organizational leaders learned of her deception, they learned that it owned $120,000 to the Internal Revenue Service for unpaid taxes.
“I would like to offer my sincere apology to Meals on Wheels, the staff and the community in general,” Ferrell said in court. “I know what I did was wrong.”
She and her husband, Jim Ferrell, have already paid about $100,000 in restitution and have the remaining funds held in trust until the IRS and Greater Spokane County Meals on Wheels can negotiate over the remaining tax bills.
“We all felt the quicker we could get the money back in their pockets, the better,” Ferrell said. “I hope that showed that I am taking responsibility. I do understand the anger that victims feel. I’m just so sorry that I caused that pain.”
But that hurt was evident in the voices of five people who testified about how the organization struggled to keep their bills paid as they pored over books to figure out the complex way that Ferrell had stolen the funds.
The organization’s executive director, Marta Harrington, cried as she tried to tell Whaley the wide-ranging damage that Ferrell’s fraud caused her organization.
At one point, Ferrell made it known that she was suffering from brain cancer and was undergoing chemotherapy. One of the organization’s volunteers cared for Ferrell, who faked the illness, even though the volunteer’s husband was also dying from cancer.
“The biggest damage Susan Ferrell caused is beyond what we are here for today,” Harrington said. “One individual can take down 45 years of volunteering and trust. The impact on so many lives doesn’t have a price tag.”
At the best of times, the organization struggled to secure enough donations to make sure elderly recipients got at least one nutritious meal. In many cases, that meal represented the only meal their clients received each day.
After Ferrell’s deception, the organization struggled to receive enough donations, Assistant U.S. Attorney Dan Fruchter said.
“Over five years, Ms. Ferrell stole more than $100,000 from an organization whose sole purpose is to provide food to people who may go hungry,” Fruchter said. “It is an organization based on good faith, charity and trust.”
Ferrell previously embezzled money from two prior employers. She modified her name and used an altered Social Security number when she applied to do that same job at the charity organization to hide her previous misdeeds, Fruchter said.
“She literally was stealing the food out of the mouths of some of our most vulnerable” people, he said. “There is no amount of restitution that can replace the standing of an organization in the community.”
Whaley said he gave lots of thought to the sentencing and said it was the first time he could remember going above the standard sentencing range since he took the bench in 1992.
Using someone else’s Social Security number “shows a premeditation that is not taken into account by the guidelines,” he said. “There is an old saying: Burn me once, shame on you. Burn me twice, shame on me. The community has been burned multiple times.”
In addition to the three years in federal prison, Whaley sentenced Ferrell to serve three years supervised release when she gets out of prison.
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