Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Woman gets 2 years for embezzlement from Youth Hockey League

A Vermont woman has been sentenced to two years in prison after pleading guilty in federal court to embezzling funds both from her employer and from a youth hockey league.

In January, 47-year-old Michelle Rutledge of Berlin pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Brattleboro to wire fraud. Authorities say she embezzled money from the Cold Hollow Cider Mill in Waterbury, where she worked as office manager and bookkeeper, and from the Harwood Youth Hockey Association, where she served as treasurer.

Authorities say Rutledge stole substantial sums by using credit cards without authorization, and by using her employer's and the hockey group's money to pay personal expenses.
Authorities say at least $75,000 was taken from the business and $53,000 from the hockey association. Rutland has to pay the amount back.

Cold Hollow Cider Mill in Waterbury Center is a popular tourist attraction in Vermont. The company known for apple cider and other sweet treats currently employs about 30 people. But a former bookkeeper left bitter feelings behind.

Michelle Rutledge, 47, of Berlin, pleaded guilty to wire fraud in January, admitting to stealing $75,000 from the company. She was sentenced Tuesday in federal court.

"We were very pleased with the outcome," said Paul Brown of Cold Hollow Cider Mill.
Paul and Gayle Brown hired Rutledge in 2000 shortly after they bought the business. They were in court when the judge handed down the two-year sentence.

"It was no longer about stealing from the business anymore," Gayle Brown said. "It was what she did to our community at Cold Hollow. The immediate community of Waterbury, the hockey program community, her family, her daughter. She duped everybody."

Cold Hollow was not Rutledge's only victim. She was also the treasurer of the Harwood Youth Hockey Association, where she admitted to stealing another $54,000. But Paul Brown says her crimes were about more than just taking other people's money.

"Also, for 13 years she dealt with customers and vendors and employees and representing us as the face of our company, the whole time be a liar and fraud and a thief," he said.

Brown says Rutledge used the company's credit card and corporate accounts to purchase personal items, like digital cameras, iPads and laptops. They say a series of lies finally alerted them that the numbers were not adding up. And they offer advice to other business owners.
"If you ever get an answer that you don't feel is quite right from an employee and those instincts are going off, follow them," Gayle advised.

"It is a lot like closing the barn door after the horse got out, but truly now I really scrutinize our company credit card accounts," Paul said.

The Browns believe Rutledge stole far more than $75,000 from the business, but the federal statute of limitations only goes back six years. They say not surprisingly, the company's profit margin doubled the year after Rutledge stopped working there.

"If they are dishonest, they are going to find a way to get away with it for quite a while. And this woman was clever enough to get away with it for 13 years, but not clever enough to get away with it forever," Paul said. "And now she is going to pay for it."

Paying for it by serving time behind bars, justice for a business and a community that got taken for a costly ride.

Rutledge reports to prison next month with a judicial recommendation for placement in a halfway house as soon as possible. She was also ordered to pay restitution to the victims. WCAX News spoke with her by phone Tuesday afternoon, but she had no comment.

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