Monday, September 5, 2011

Ex-church secretary gets 44-month prison term for embezzlement in Tennessee


A 70-year-old woman who bilked $1.5 million from the Morristown church where she worked for nearly five decades received both punishment and absolution on Thursday.

Senior U.S. District Judge Leon Jordan sentenced Barbara D. Whitt to 44 months in prison for a years-long scheme to defraud First Baptist Church of Morristown, where she worked as financial secretary.

But the church offered Whitt forgiveness.

"Barbara, First Baptist Church loves you, and we have no anger or bitterness toward you," Senior Pastor Dean Haun told Whitt at Thursday's sentencing hearing in U.S. District Court in Greeneville. "Barbara, may the Lord bless you."

Whitt served for 47 years as the financial secretary for First Baptist Church, which has a congregation of about 2,500. She and her son, Michael Dean Whitt, 44, were indicted in November 2010. Records show Barbara Whitt robbed church coffers for three years by lying to church officials to get their signatures on 1,650 checks on which she later added her own name as payee.

Michael Whitt deposited money embezzled from the church into prepaid cards and took other steps to avoid currency transaction reports. He faces sentencing later this year.

Defense attorney Tommy Hindman argued that Barbara Whitt was herself a victim of her son and only child.

"Ms. Whitt had been told by her son that he needed money to pay off the Internal Revenue Service as well as other outstanding checks he alleged were from his legitimate business," Hindman wrote in a sentencing memorandum. "Mr. Whitt convinced his mother that unless she came up with money, he would go to jail and she would never see him again."

Instead, Hindman said, Michael Whitt used the purloined cash to buy cars, a boat and drugs.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Neil Smith countered that Barbara Whitt "kept the books" for her son's business and "would have had full knowledge of her son's business" affairs.

The courtroom was packed with members of not only First Baptist Church but Grace Baptist Church, where Whitt was a member for nearly six decades.

"I am so sorry, and I just ask their forgiveness," Whitt told Jordan before turning toward church members. "Please, forgive me."Jordan declined to sentence Whitt to the minimum 41-month prison term but still cut her a slight break from the maximum.

"You're fortunate to have that much support, that much love and that much forgiveness," he said. "You have betrayed all of them We must send a message to the public."

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