Ex-Vermillion Chamber employee pleads guilty to charges, avoids trial

Ex-Vermillion Chamber employee pleads guilty to charges, avoids trial By David Lias
Plain Talk Tina Harnois, 40, the former program manager of the Vermillion Chamber of Commerce and Development Company (VCDC), avoided an upcoming jury trial by agreeing May 16 to enter guilty pleas to two of a long list of charges. Harnois was indicted by a Clay County grand jury in early January of 28 counts of forgery and one count of grand theft. She pleaded not guilty to those charges before Circuit Court Judge Art Rusch in mid-February. Her jury trial was scheduled to begin May 19 on grand theft and embezzlement charges. State's attorney Teddi Gertsma told the judge Friday that an agreement had been reached between her office and Harnois. In exchange for Harnois' guilty plea to two counts in her grand jury indictment, the remaining 27 counts would be dropped. Harnois agreed to waive her right to a jury trial by pleading guilty to Count 4 in the indictment. This counts states that on or about Dec. 1, 2006, Harnois committed forgery by writing a check to her daughter, Michelle Harnois, in the amount of $825 on the Vermillion Area Chamber of Commerce and Development Company's (VCDC's) checking account. Harnois told Rusch Friday that she, not her daughter, cashed the check and kept the funds. She also said she had no authority to write the check. She also pleaded guilty to Count 29 of the indictment, which states that between November 2006 and November 2007, Harnois committed grand theft by taking over $1,000 belonging to the VCDC. "That came about because I took liberties â�?¦ and took amounts of money out of petty cash over $1,000," she told Rusch. Harnois, of Vermillion, was taken into custody by local police on Jan. 8 and remained free on $10,000 bond, after depositing 10 percent of that amount, or $1,000, with the Clay County clerk of courts. Her indictment came after an investigation by Vermillion police last November, when the VCDC board of directors discovered financial discrepancies. According to court documents obtained by the Vermillion Plain Talk, Harnois forged 28 checks on the VCDC's checking account between Nov. 1, 2006, and Nov. 2, 2007. Thirteen of the checks were written to her, according to the indictment. Others were written to individuals or businesses. According to a Jan. 10 Vermillion Police Department press release, the total amount stolen was $27,788.31. Rusch stated Friday that the forgery charge is a Class 5 felony, punishable by a maximum sentence of five years in the state penitentiary and a $10,000 fine. The grand theft charge is a more serious Class 4 felony, with a maximum possible sentence of 10 years in prison and a $20,000 fine. Rusch granted a request by Harnois' attorney, Lee McCahren of Vermillion, who asked that a pre-sentence investigation be conducted. Gertsema told the judge that Harnois is also asking for a suspended imposition of sentence. She said the state has agreed to take no position on this request, but she told Gertsema that the VCDC board is opposing this request. A suspended imposition of sentence basically suspends a sentence, and many times, the defendant is placed on probation. If a person breaks the law during the probation period, the court can punish the person for the crime that they committed previously. If the person does not get in trouble during their probation period, then the crime is forgiven and the person is not convicted. The sentence that awaits Harnois is currently uncertain, but one fact that is known is she faces a substantial financial burden. Her retribution will include the nearly $28,000 she stole from the VCDC office, and routine court costs. She also must pay $100 to the S.D. Department of Criminal Investigation, for the costs it incurred while downloading data from a VCDC computer during the criminal investigation. The VCDC also incurred expenses totaling nearly $15,800 for an audit it conducted of its finances after the crimes were discovered. â�?�?The state will be asking (Harnois) to pay that,â�? Gertsema said.

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