SUNDANCE — Despite deciding that the charges against Crook County Treasurer Mary Kuhl merit binding her case over to District Court, Judge Wendy Bartlett of the Circuit Court of the 6th Judicial District determined on Thursday that Kuhl should be allowed to return to the office.
After announcing her decision to elevate the case to the next tier of the court system, Judge Bartlett was asked to revisit the terms of Kuhl’s bond.
“They need her help in the office,” said her lawyer, Jason Tangeman.
On behalf of the state, special prosecutor Greg Steward protested that the charges against Kuhl include both a felony and three misdemeanors, “exhibiting there is a pattern of similar behavior.”
For this reason, he said, further damage could be done to the Treasurer’s Office if she were allowed to return.
Steward added that the Crook County Commissioners have asked the Attorney General’s Office to seek Kuhl’s removal from office. Tangeman pointed out that he does not believe the office is “moving forward at this juncture” and said Kuhl disputes the charges against her.
Tangeman also noted that Kuhl is “under scrutiny” at this time and said it would be, “crazy for her to commit another felony or misdemeanor.”
“She’s got a lot to lose,” he said.
The special prosecutor, however, pointed out that Kuhl’s behavior has been under investigation for a while, including by the FBI, and the behaviors she has been charged for took place while she was being investigated by the Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI). Though he did not dispute this summary of the timeline, Tangeman responded that the federal government has not yet charged Kuhl with anything.
When asked by Judge Bartlett if she could perform any duties that do not involve the handling of money, Kuhl listed several administrative tasks. Judge Bartlett said she would amend the bond to allow her to resume only those duties that do not involve handling cash or receipts.
Steward objected, stating his concern that Kuhl would have access to the accounts and systems and could make adjustments to them. It’s her access to the systems that brought her to court in the first place, he said, and reinstating Kuhl causes him to have, “grave concerns about the welfare of the office.”
In response, Judge Bartlett reaffirmed her decision to allow Kuhl’s return to the office.
Kuhl appeared in Circuit Court on Thursday for a preliminary hearing that began with the testimony of DCI Special Agent Jason Ruby. Ruby was questioned regarding the felony Kuhl has been charged with: unauthorized use of monies.
According to his testimony, Ruby was alerted by the Crook County Attorney’s Office on June 25 to allegations of “irregularities” that came from a deputy within the Treasurer’s Office.
The incident allegedly involved a transaction for a vehicle registration and sales tax, which included a transfer credit. The citizen’s payment was entered correctly into the TaxWise system used to record transactions on June 14; however, later that day, Ruby stated that the transaction was voided and re-entered.
The second time it was entered, he said, the transfer credit was increased by $360.01. He noted that the alterations did not appear to have been done on behalf of the customer, stating during his testimony that, “According to my investigation, there was no reason to void the transaction.”
On the same day, said Ruby, $360.01 was removed from the office cash box, which meant the box and computer system “balanced out” at the end of the day.
In other words, a customer’s payment total was altered in the computer system and the same amount was then taken from the cash box.
“By increasing the amount paid in the TaxWise system, it decreased what had to be in the cash box,” Ruby explained.
Approximately nine days later, said Ruby, the system was changed again to replace the $360.01 in the customer’s transaction and $360.01 was also added to the cash box. This took place on June 23, which was eight days after Agent Ruby first made contact with Kuhl.
In all instances when the transaction was entered and changed on the computer system, Ruby confirmed that the user ID was “Mary K.” He confirmed that, to his knowledge, Kuhl’s actions were not within the scope of her employment and were not authorized by any law.
Ruby was cross-examined by Tangeman, who asked if the county has been shorted any money through Kuhl’s alleged actions. Not any more, Ruby responded, but for nine days the county was shorted by $360.01.
Tangeman asked Ruby if he believes Kuhl profited from this alleged incident.
“I cannot say that for sure,” replied Ruby.
Steward objected to this line of questioning because the statute addresses unauthorized “use” of monies, which means any use not specifically authorized by law, which makes the question of who benefited from that use irrelevant.
In that case, asked Tangeman, what exactly is the unauthorized use? Ruby replied that it is the fact that $360.01 went missing for approximately nine days.
Tangeman confirmed that Ruby has no evidence that Kuhl used, loaned or deposited the money.
However, Steward reiterated during his redirect that the evidence does show Kuhl went into the account, knocked the total down by $360.01, removed the same amount from the cash box and then did the opposite nine days later to return the $360.01.
In his closing argument, he stated that Kuhl has been charged with unauthorized use of monies, which according to the statute applies to any purpose other than that authorized by law. The state, Steward said, does not have to show what that purpose actually was.
He reminded the court that the exact amount that went missing was then put back, “all under the name of Mary K.” The money was removed without any authorization by the law, he said, and the fact is that she was not allowed to do what she did.
Tangeman’s closing argument focused on the fact that the evidence does not show what happened to the money during the period it went missing.
“The question becomes, what was going on with the $360.01 for the nine days?” he asked.
While questioning Ruby, Tangeman had asked if Ruby checked the safe during his investigation. Ruby replied that he did not, but that employees of the Treasurer’s Office did go through its contents.
“How do you know that the $360.01 was not in the safe at the Treasurer’s Office for the nine days?” Tangeman asked.
Ruby responded that he cannot know that answer because he had not yet been notified of the allegations during the time period the money could conceivably have been stored in the safe.
During his closing argument, Tangeman said he suspects evidence will be found that shows the money was in the office safe for those nine days. There’s no law against putting the money in the safe, he said, and there’s no evidence Kuhl took it for herself or used it.
There’s no disputing that it’s a good question where the money disappeared to, Tangeman said, but it’s the state’s job to prove it was used. He disagreed with the judge that the money was taken for an unauthorized purpose.
But there is evidence it was taken, said Judge Bartlett.
“So what?” Tangeman replied. There is no evidence it ever left the Treasurer’s Office and, “Ms. Kuhl doesn’t have the burden of proof.”
After quietly considering for a few moments, Judge Bartlett stated that, “There’s definitely some strange things going on here,” which raises the question of whether Kuhl was acting appropriately, if not legally.
The evidence so far suggests Kuhl’s actions were intentional and that the statute does not allow the money to be used for any other purpose than that which was intended, Judge Bartlett said, so it’s “not a far reach” to say her actions were not authorized by the law.
This, she continued, is probable cause enough to bind over the case to District Court.
Kuhl will now face four individual charges in District Court, including a felony count of unauthorized use of monies, which carries a maximum penalty of two years of imprisonment, a $5000 fine or both; it may also result in removal from office.
In addition, Kuhl has been charged with three misdemeanors: one count of official misconduct and two of issuing false certificate.