May 8, 2013

Merced embezzler sentenced to year in jail

Local political consultant Mary Ward was sentenced to one year in jail Wednesday for embezzling $23,000 from a Merced County ag committee.

Local political consultant Mary Ward was sentenced to one year in jail Wednesday for embezzling $23,000 from a Merced County ag committee.

Ward, 56, pleaded no contest April 2 to one count of felony embezzlement for stealing $23,000 from the Agribusiness Committee of Merced County.

On Wednesday, Judge Marc Garcia accepted the prosecution's recommendation to sentence Ward to the maximum sentence of one year jail, with three years' probation.

During last month's hearing, Garcia told Ward she should make "every effort" to repay the stolen funds by her May 8 court date. However, Ward has only paid back about $6,400 of the embezzled funds, according to Deputy District Attorney Walter Wall.

Ward offered no apology in court Wednesday, according to Wall. "I think it's the appropriate punishment for what she did," the prosecutor said when asked about the one-year jail sentence.

As part of her sentence, Ward will be required to pay back the stolen money.

It's still uncertain whether she'll be permitted to serve her jail time by wearing a GPS ankle bracelet at home or participating in a similar alternative-sentencing program.

She's scheduled to report to the jail June 20.

Ward's attorney Richard Harriman said his client is "profoundly disappointed" about the harm she caused to the committee. Harriman said Ward has taken responsibility for the crime and plans on repaying the money as soon as possible.

"Throughout this she's acknowledged that she made a bad choice, and it's a tragic choice because of the good work she's done in the community," Harriman said. "I think Mary Ward is looking forward to getting this behind her and getting on with her life."

Sharon Gallaway, past president of the committee, read a statement in court Wednesday on behalf of the organization.

Gallaway said Ward's actions forced the committee to allocate less money for youth scholarships, and the organization had barely enough money to hold its annual Farm City Banquet, which recognizes outstanding citizens in agriculture.

"Mary, we trusted you, but you stole funds that would have been used to provide an opportunity to foster a positive educational environment for a younger generation," the statement said. "The Agribusiness Committee of Merced County requests full restitution of the funds embezzled and prosecution to the full extent of the law for your actions."

In an interview conducted by the probation department Feb. 26, Ward called her crime a "stupid mistake."

Ward claimed she and her husband had issues with the Internal Revenue Service and Franchise Tax Board taking money from her family's bank account, which led to "panic" and her "bad decision."

The Merced Police Department started an investigation in June after being contacted by Gallaway.

According to a police report, Gallaway became suspicious after Ward told the committee during a meeting that it had an account balance of more than $28,000. Gallaway previously had been notified by the committee's bank that the account balance had fallen below $10,000.

After authorities contacted Ward, she admitted taking the money, according to police. She told police that the IRS had frozen her assets, and she was afraid of losing her home.

Ward provided police with an itemized list of checks she'd written to herself from the committee's account.

City Editor Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or vpatton@mercedsunstar.com.

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