Ex-county cashier guilty of embezzling more than $617,000 placed on jail watch

By Paul Gottlieb
Peninsula Daily News

PORT ANGELES — The day after she was found guilty of stealing at least $617,467 in public money, Catherine Betts was being closely watched at her new, though temporary, home: the Clallam County jail.

Betts, who is in a wheelchair, is living in a naturally lighted cell designed for disabled access, and staff are checking on her at least every 30 minutes, jail superintendent Ron Sukert said Thursday.

“It’s been a pretty trying time for her, I’m sure, and there has been some discussion about perhaps harm to herself,” he said.

“That’s something we would take seriously and try to prevent. I think it’s appropriate to take added precautions.”

A Clallam County Superior Court jury Wednesday found Betts, 47, guilty of aggravated first-degree theft, money laundering and 19 counts of filing false or fraudulent tax returns on behalf of the county for stealing between $617,467 and $793,595 between June 2003 and May 2009.

She committed the fifth-largest embezzlement of public funds in Washington state since at least 2000, the state Auditor’s Office has said.

Assistant state Attorney General Scott Marlow said Tuesday that Betts could be sentenced to between 43 months and 21 years. Her sentencing hearing is 9 a.m. Wednesday, Aug. 24.

Once sentenced, she will likely serve her time at the Washington Corrections Center for Women at Purdy north of Gig Harbor, state Department of Corrections spokesman Chad Lewis said Thursday.

The level of security she will be under will depend on her behavior, he said.

For now, Betts is living in an approximately 10-foot-by-10-foot jail cell known as a medical room next to an area reserved for medical personnel, “so she’s under pretty close supervision,” Sukert said.

The cell includes a grab rail, a bed that’s low to the floor, an emergency-call alarm and no radio or TV.

Sukert said Betts has access to activities outside her cell “as needed and as we can provide.”

That does not include mixing with other prisoners.

Betts’ wheelchair could be dismantled and its pieces used as weapons, Sukert explained.

Loren Oakley, one of two lawyers from Clallam-Jefferson Public Defenders who represented Betts, said he did not know what malady has forced Betts to use a wheelchair, a situation that occurred after the theft was discovered in 2009.

“I have no idea what the cause is,” Oakley said Thursday. “I never asked. I didn’t see any relevance to her case.”

Betts stole the funds from a single cash drawer in the Treasurer’s Office that she had access to by exchanging real estate excise tax checks paid by the public for cash.

She also made up false check amounts in officer records, altered and destroyed paper documents, manipulated office computer spreadsheets, created sophisticated passwords and falsified records to the state Department of Revenue.

Betts admitted to stealing an $877 check that her other lawyer, Harry Gasnick, told the jury Wednesday she never cashed.

But in testimony Tuesday, she could not explain the numerous large cash deposits to her Port Angeles bank account.

Marlow estimated that there were more than 1,000 takings of money from the cash drawer and that $150,000 in all was deposited in her account.

The minimum amount of $617,467 that the jury — after deliberating for four hours — found her guilty of stealing has never been found, nor has it been determined what it was spent on.

Port Angeles Police Detective Jason Viada said Thursday he served 13 warrants for financial records to track down the funds but was unsuccessful.

Investigators from the state Attorney General’s Office and state Auditor’s Office also tried tracking the money.

“Most any cash purchase would be difficult to trace,” Viada said.

Former Treasurer Judy Scott, who was in office while Betts was employed in the Treasurer’s Office, did not return a call for comment about the case.

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Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-417-3536 or at paul.gottlieb@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: July 30. 2011 11:08AM
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