Wednesday, August 10, 2011
Another Goochland soap opera
Brenda Grubbs pleads guilty
Those who mourn the passing of television soaps operas have only to look to Goochland for their regular dose of melodrama.
The latest episode of How Goochland Turns was held on Tuesday, August 9 when former county treasurer Brenda S. Grubbs pleaded guilty to eighteen counts of embezzlement; one count of attempted embezzlement and one count of money laundering before Goochland Circuit Court Judge Timothy K. Sanner. Grubbs missed an earlier court date on July 26 because she was hospitalized.
Grubbs and her husband arrived a few minutes before the 2 p.m. start of the Circuit Court session. News crews from all three Richmond TV stations surrounded her as she waited for the doors to open. She stood silently, her face turned toward the wall of the courthouse. Except for a few affirmative answers to questions posed by the judge and 20 pleas of “guilty” Grubbs said nothing during her court appearance.
The guilty plea spares the county the expense of a trial. Grubbs waives her right to appeal Sanner’s decisions regarding sentencing. In return, the Commonwealth will bring no further charges against her in connection with the embezzlement.
Sentencing will be on December 13 after pre-sentence and victim impact statements have been presented to the court. These will be sealed.
The charges against Grubbs carry a maximum of 410 years in prison. A request by Grubbs’ attorney, James Maloney, to prepare an alternate punishment evaluation was rejected by Sanner who said it was “unlikely” to be granted.
Fluvanna Commonwealth’s Attorney Jeff Haislip, who was appointed special prosecutor in the case to avoid the appearance of either prejudice or favoritism, presented a summary of the charges against Grubbs.
It sounded way too much like the product of a soap opera scriptwriter’s fevered imagination.
On or about February 14, 2010 Brenda Grubbs began an online relationship with someone allegedly named Bobby Johnson who claimed to be from Falls Church but was in Nigeria. He told Grubbs he had been shot and needed money for medical care.
Haislip indicated that, according to emails found after execution of a search warrant for Grubbs’ home, office and car, “Johnson” plucked at Grubbs’ heartstrings to establish a friendship with romantic overtones. He emphasized that Grubbs never met him in person.
Over the intervening months, “Johnson” managed to convince Grubbs to send him money; she first used her personal funds, as much as $100,000, which Maloney said she exhausted before dipping into county coffers.
Haislip contended that the confiscated emails contained phrasing indicating that “Johnson” did not speak English as a first language. Efforts to trace the emails back to Nigeria were unsuccessful.
That’s right. Brenda Grubbs, the woman entrusted with overseeing Goochland’s money, got taken in by a cyber lothario.
The first of the embezzling counts was comprised of 20 separate transactions. Grubbs sent the money via Western Union on a regular basis. Haislip said that when Western Union would no longer deal with Grubbs, he did not elaborate why, she convinced family members and friends to act in her stead. Her rationale, said Haislip, was that she was helping a church in Nigeria.
Grubbs used Western Union offices in Goochland, Henrico and other places, said Haislip. She obtained the money by altering deposit slips and moving funds among different county accounts. She seems to have spent so much time at the bank and wire transfer office that it’s no wonder county accounts were not reconciled in a timely manner.
According to evidence presented by Haislip, Grubbs took thousands of dollars at a time in amounts like $6,000; $12,000; $5,810 and $7,467. That may have just been the way the cash portion of the daily deposits worked out. The straw that broke the camel’s back and prompted a call from a bank to County Administrator Rebecca Dickson in February was Grubbs’ attempt to cash a check written to herself on a county account for $14,340.
Haislip did indicate that Dickson had gotten some earlier notification of previous irregular transactions and said that an investigation into Grubbs’ activities began before her arrest early in February, 2011.
Photographs of Grubbs making the transactions were part of the evidence.
Maloney told Sanner that Grubbs was suffering from unspecified physical ailments and was depressed when she was targeted by an online predator and was manipulated by overtures of what he characterized as “romantic friendship” with someone in dire straits in a far off land.
Grubbs, through Maloney, accepted full responsibility for her actions and claimed to have been working to raise funds for restitution to the county. He said that Grubbs did not use any of the money for herself but instead sent overseas to help the mythical Bobby Johnson.
He said that more details will be provided at sentencing, at which time he may call expert witnesses. Maloney explained that Grubbs, upon her release from Henrico Doctors Hospital, enrolled in a New Directions program and is taking a variety of medications for unspecified conditions.
Maloney contended that Grubbs is not a flight risk and asked that she remain free on bond so she can continue to amass funds to make restitution. (One has to wonder why she did not tap those sources to help Bobby.)
Sanner concurred stating that her offences were not violent in nature and she no longer has access to county accounts. He has treated other local embezzlers in a similar manner. Sanner did require Grubbs to meet with a probation officer immediately after leaving the courtroom to set up a reporting schedule until sentencing.
Haislip estimated that Grubbs’ theft totaled about $184,000. That does not include the expense incurred by the county and the Commonwealth to investigate the matter. He also said that it is likely that Grubbs kept the accounts for her household and her husband had no idea what she was doing.
This situation is very sad and very scary. How could someone unable to recognize an internet scam be elected to an office that requires a high level of competence and integrity? Grubbs was charged with handling all county funds, millions of dollars or public money was in her care.
Haislip said that he believes that Grubbs will serve some active incarceration because of the serious nature and magnitude of her breach of public trust. He said that the citizens of Goochland need closure on this matter and hopes that the revelations during her arraignment and sentencing will provide that.
Clearly Grubbs is very troubled. The bizarre way she attempted to assuage her personal misery became a public embarrassment for her and her family and Goochland County. That does not excuse her transgressions.
The scary part of the entire episode is that, until the 2009 comprehensive county audit, which brought the dreadful lack of internal county financial controls to light, no one noticed that it was even possible for this kind activity to occur. This is yet another failure by the board of supervisors, controlled by the members from Districts 1, 2 and 5, to provide good stewardship of county funds.
Goochland County will recover the stolen money either from the state treasurer’s bond or Grubbs’ personal funds.
If there is a silver lining to the episode, it is that “Johnson” did not help Grubbs clean out all county accounts. Also, the treasurer’s office has been thoroughly investigated and new, tighter money handling and other operational procedures have been put into place to make a repeat performance unlikely.
Given the Board of Supervisors’ reluctance to air the dirty linen of Grubbs’ failure to perform some of the most basic functions of her office in a timely and proficient manner, it is quite possible that she might have run for reelection without opposition, as happened four years ago, and won.
Now it is up to the voters to put new leadership in place so Goochland County can stop being the laughingstock of the region.