By Rob Alway. Editor-in-Chief.
LUDINGTON — The former chairwoman of the Ludington Petunia Parade appeared in 51st Circuit Court today and pleaded guilty to embezzlement.
Donna Brown, 60, 4152 W. Washington Road, Pentwater, served as chair of the committee from 2008 to 2013. Over the course of that time, she took $47,807.15 from the committee’s account. That money was raised through donations from individuals, businesses, industries and the Community Foundation of Mason County.
Embezzlement of more than $20,000 but less than $50,000 is a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison. The penalty also could include paying three times the amount embezzled. However, Brown was offered a plea agreement today by Mason County Prosecutor Paul Spaniola of six months in jail, serving four months in confinement and then 60 days on a tether. She also will have to pay restitution in the amount stolen.
Brown’s attorney David Betz said there is a dispute of about $500. He and Spaniola said the issue will be resolved before sentencing.
“I was borrowing the money and I was going to pay it back. I started feeling more comfortable writing checks and writing checks. It was probably a greed thing. I wanted more and and I got more.”
Brown explained that she was one of four people on the eight person committee who had access to the checkbook. She said she wrote the checks out to cash. She said there was really no checks and balances system in place.
“I used the money to pay personal bills, buy food for my family, medical expenses I incurred at that point,” she said.
She told Judge Cooper that she became chairwoman after showing up at a meeting. There was no election and there was no membership policy.
Barb Sitler, the current chair of the committee, said the Pentunia Parade committee is ready to move forward. When asked if the committee was pleased with the plea agreement she said, “For taking money from a non-profit, I don’t know. I’m not to judge.”
Committee member Sue Ann Schntiker said the committee is not in agreement with its reaction to the plea.
Sitler said, despite the embezzlement, Brown can be credited with making the petunia parade a better organization. “Under Donna, it was much more organized compared to the previous chair,” she said.
She also said that the committee has learned some lessons.
Schntiker said one of the committee’s goals is to become a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, something it had not been previously.
Brown is scheduled to be sentenced on June 10 at 2 p.m.