Friday, September 23, 2011

Former Cave Spring Elementary PTA treasurer gets 6 months in jail in Virginia

Despite repaying the almost $25,000 she stole and reading a tearful apology to Cave Spring Elementary School in court, Melissa Brown Neal earned a sentence of six months in jail for embezzling and forging checks from the school's PTA.

Neal, 38, was sentenced Monday in Roanoke County Circuit Court to four years for two felony convictions of forgery and eight years for two felony convictions of embezzlement. Judge Jim Swanson suspended all but 180 days in jail and four years probation from that 12-year sentence. Neal will learn next week whether she will be eligible to serve the 180 days on house arrest, which would allow her to continue to work.
Neal's attorney, Tony Anderson, had asked the judge not to send her to jail because she had repaid the group in full and given back to the community.
"Once all this came to light, you did everything right," Swanson told Neal before stating her sentence. "It doesn't erase that what you did occurred, what you did was wrong, what you did was recurrent."
Swanson added that he sentenced her to jail because of the message it would send back to the teachers, students and families who know about the situation and had supported the PTA.
Neal, a mother and accountant, was the group's volunteer treasurer since 2006. During the 2009-2010 school year she wrote checks to herself and signed the name of the PTA president, according to court documents.
At first, investigators thought the amount of money missing was a few thousand dollars.
Later in a taped confession to police, Neal said she needed the money to pay for a line of credit that had ballooned.
In May, she pleaded no contest to nine felony charges.
"It was a snowball effect," she wrote in an email to former PTA President Keller Sadler. "I hardly recognize myself."
Neal repeated the sentiments in court Monday as she read from a prepared statement and wiped tears from her cheeks.
The PTA hasn't dwelt on the incident, and Cave Spring staff, teachers and parents continue to support the group, current PTA President Jackie Martin wrote in an email.
This year, the group expects to bring in $44,700 through fundraising activities, less than $500 short of what the group raised during 2009-2010, when Neal committed her crimes, according to a proposed budget available on the group's website.
There's a possibility that Neal could spend most or all of her sentence on house arrest, a decision made by the Roanoke County Sheriff's Office - not the judge - when she reports to jail Monday.
To decide whether she'll qualify for house arrest, the sheriff's office will perform a background check and review her criminal record, which includes no run-ins with the law other than a speeding ticket, her attorney said. If placed under house arrest, Neal would wear a GPS tracker, take weekly drug and alcohol tests and may continue to do essential tasks, such as go to work, according to sheriff's Deputy Michael Arrington.
Since March, Neal has been employed by Laura Reed Wright, a lawyer with a small practice in the area.
Wright told the judge Monday that she trusts Neal and has allowed her to print checks for her business but not sign them.
"She's not placed the blame anywhere other than her own shoulders," said Wright, who met Neal last year through their children. "I entrust her with my child, who's my most prized possession."

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