By Sharna Johnson: CNJ Staff Writer
Curry County Treasurer Rhonda Bookout entered a no-contest plea Friday morning to a felony charge of tampering with public records. She will serve 12 months unsupervised probation, according to her attorney.
Under the terms of the agreement, Bookout must resign as county treasurer immediately.
Bookout was indicted in February as part of an investigation into $19,000 in unaccounted for funds from 2007 Curry County Fair.
No one has been charged with taking the money.
Bookout was accused of altering county fund ledgers to reflect deposits that were never made.
Defense attorney Gary Mitchell said Bookout admitted to a “technical violation” of the law in that she improperly transferred money from one county account to another.
“It was a charge for improper movement of funds. She regrets that very much but on the other hand she honored her commitment (to the people of Curry County) and the judge saw fit to give her a conditional discharge,” Mitchell said.
Bookout, who has been on voluntary unpaid leave since she was indicted, is also required to forfeit salary and benefits from that time period amounting to more than $26,097, according to the district attorney’s office.
She was elected to a four-year term as treasurer in 2004.
District Attorney Matt Chandler said in a news release Bookout “intentionally altered and falsified public records that were being used to assist officers and county officials in the investigation (of missing fair funds).”
Chandler said the state views the forfeited pay as restitution.
“A fraudulent accounting problem was exposed and dealt with accordingly. There is justice in the fact that due to Ms. Bookout’s actions she has now been removed from public office and forfeited over $26,000 in wages back to the Curry County tax payers,” Chandler said in the release.
Chandler said the plea agreement does not protect Bookout from future prosecution related to missing funds.
Chandler said the investigation and audits conducted into the 2007 fair accounts revealed a disorganized accounting system and numerous volunteers and officials with access to funds, making it difficult to ascertain where the funds went.
“You don’t ever want to close the doors to an investigation; obviously the taxpayers lost $19,000,” he said.
Bookout was scheduled for a two-day trial beginning Sept. 8.
If convicted of tampering, a fourth-degree felony, Bookout faced up to 18 months imprisonment and a maximum fine of $5,000.
County Manager Lance Pyle said Deputy Treasurer Bernice Baker will continue to serve as treasurer until the county commission appoints someone to the position.
Steve Kopelman, risk manager for the New Mexico Association of Counties, said adjusters with his office are investigating an insurance claim by Curry County to replace the missing money through the association’s self-insurance pool.