Serious crimes that violate confidence in public officials demand serious consequences, Sarpy County Attorney Lee Polikov said Monday.
So Sarpy County District Judge David Arterburn got it right when he sentenced former Gretna City Administrator Colleen Lawry to six months in jail for her misuse of city funds, said Polikov, in sentiments echoed by several other local and state officials.
With good-time credit, Lawry will spend at least three to four months at the Sarpy County Jail, including Christmas and New Year's, prosecutor Stephanie Hansen said.
Polikov said Lawry isn't the first local official to be sentenced to jail time for misusing public funds. In 1992, former Sarpy County Treasurer Kathleen Ingram was sentenced to two to four years in prison for stealing $7,891 in office funds.
“Some people might be surprised, but I don't think this sentencing is anything out of the ordinary,” Polikov said.
Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine said Lawry's incarceration “sends a strong message that just because you don't look like a criminal, you still pay a price for taking taxpayers' funds.”
“It's akin to white-collar cases,” Kleine said. “It's good to see.”
In 2006, former Douglas County Treasurer's Office employee Fred Cappellano was sentenced to 18 months in prison for stealing $121,000 from the office.
Arterburn told Lawry her acts over a three-year period showed narcissistic traits that prioritized her own needs.
In addition to the jail time, Lawry must perform 100 hours of community service in Gretna for a government or nonprofit agency and pay $3,000 in fines. She was ordered to spend two years on probation, starting at the same time as her jail sentence.
As a condition of Lawry's probation, the judge ordered her to write a public apology letter to be published in the Gretna Breeze.
Lawry, 49, pleaded no contest in September to two misdemeanor theft charges and one charge of official misconduct, also a misdemeanor.
Lawry faced felony charges after investigators found evidence that she had misused nearly $1,000 from a Gretna senior citizens fund. Prosecutors said she spent the money at several stores, including Victoria's Secret and a liquor store.
The judge on Monday scolded Lawry for treating the City of Gretna's funds as her “own line of credit.”
“It seems to me, Ms. Lawry, your actions in these cases are quite troubling,” Arterburn said.
Papillion defense attorney Mike Munch asked for probation. Lawry was a prominent local official, he said, who has paid restitution.
“Things got blurred, and she made some mistakes and hurt her credibility with the City of Gretna,” Munch said. “She has to pay back society for what she has done.”
Munch said Lawry's actions damaged her prospects of future employment. “She is going to suffer for a long time,” Munch said. “Obviously, she's got to start over and find another line of work.”
Lawry didn't comment during her sentencing.
Nebraska State Auditor Mike Foley applauded Lawry's sentence. It was Foley's April audit of Gretna's finances that sparked the criminal investigation.
Foley's audit alleged that Lawry had used her city credit card for about $5,000 in personal expenses, including $800 at clothing stores for “uniforms,” which her job did not require, and that she took at least 11 city-paid out-of-state trips in 2011 and 2012. Some of her visits to outlet malls on behalf of the City of Gretna were later questioned.
“If the government has the right to reach into the taxpayers' pockets for revenue,” Foley said, “then we have the obligation to ensure all the funds are spent properly.”
Lawry still faces a misdemeanor charge of transferring a firearm without a certificate. The gun belonged to former Bellevue Police Chief John Stacey. Lawry has been subpoenaed to testify at Stacey's trial later this month.
Sarpy County Sheriff's Lt. Russ Zeeb said the fallout from Lawry's case has changed the course of Gretna city government. The scandal cost Mayor Sally McGuire re-election.
Incoming Mayor Jim Timmerman has promised to bring more openness to Gretna City Hall. He is in the process of hiring a new city administrator.
After Lawry was fired, the Gretna City Council adopted new rules for financial oversight that prohibit employees from using credit cards for personal expenses, require receipts for reimbursements and set a $200 cap on payments for “uniforms, logo apparel or safety equipment.”
“Justice has been served, and I applaud Judge Arterburn,” Zeeb said. “It's a great end to a long, sad story.”
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