MERCED -- Area political consultant Mary Ward has promised to quickly repay the nearly $23,000 she's accused of stealing from the Agribusiness Committee of Merced County, according to her attorney.
Merced Superior Court Judge Marc Garcia allowed Ward on Tuesday to put off entering a plea to a felony embezzlement charge in response to promises she would repay all the money shortly.
Ward will be able to return the money after she settles a tax dispute with the Internal Revenue Service, said her attorney Richard Harriman.
"(The) IRS improperly took funds from Ward's husband," he said. "When the funds are returned from the IRS, she will be able to make the other party whole."
A court hearing has been scheduled for April 2, when Ward is expected to plead to the charge.
Deputy District Attorney Walter Wall said he was amenable to giving Ward more time to consider her plea.
"In these types of cases, one of our primary goals is to recover the money," he said. "Our response is 'OK, we'll agree to continue arraignment on your promise that you're going to pay the entire amount back.' "
In June, Ward was investigated after the Agribusiness Committee contacted the Merced Police Department. Members of the committee became suspicious of Ward, who was the committee's treasurer, after she incorrectly reported the account fund balance.
The committee organizes the Farm City Banquet at the Merced County Fairgrounds, puts on the Progressive Agriculture Safety Day for third-graders and provides college scholarships to students in agriculture.
When questioned by authorities, Ward provided an itemized list of checks she had written to herself from the committee, according to the police report. She told police that the IRS had frozen her assets and she was afraid of losing her home.
Ward faces a maximum of three years in county jail, Wall said. "I have communicated an offer for her to plead and I have not received a definitive response."
Harriman said the plea negotiations are ongoing. "We're still in negotiations to see what the terms and conditions are of the plea."
"This is her first offense," he added. "I think it would be unlikely that she would serve time in jail."
Ward is probably best known for her connection to Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani.
As a consultant for Galgiani, Ward claimed that she was improperly fired for accusing another staffer of falsely billing his time.
Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or firstname.lastname@example.org.