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Former Potsdam court clerk charged, allegedly stole $117,000


POTSDAM — Former Potsdam Town Court clerk Mary Jo Guyette was arraigned on two felony counts Tuesday, accused of embezzling $117,120 since 2009.

Ms. Guyette was led into court in handcuffs just after noon at Pierrepont Town Court, where she pleaded not guilty to grand larceny and falsifying business records.

She has been the subject of an investigation by state police and the state comptroller’s office since June, and is accused of altering court financial documents to hide the thefts. She was fired in September.

According to state police Senior Investigator Timothy J. Peets, the investigation uncovered evidence that Ms. Guyette had been taking money from the court since 2009.

According to a statement from Town Justice Samuel R. Charleson included in the arraignment documents, Ms. Guyette first was suspected of wrongdoing when assistant court clerk Sherri Stone noticed discrepancies in the court’s financial records. Fees that were supposed to have been paid to the court had been erased, and the case files corresponding to those fees were missing.

Mr. Charleson decided to keep track of a specific $150 fine that was paid to the court June 7, according to his statement. He confronted Ms. Guyette about the discrepancies in the record June 10. She claimed she was fixing mistakes made by Ms. Stone.

Mr. Charleson suspended Ms. Guyette with pay, and checked on the $150 he had made note of previously. The money was missing from the safe, and the record of the transaction had been erased with Wite-Out.

“I am dismayed by the flagrant manner in which this local official abused her position,” state Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli said in a statement. “Town officials deserve credit for bringing their concerns about the justice court’s finances to my office. My auditors and investigators did a tremendous job uncovering the extent of this theft, and District Attorney (Mary E.) Rain and the New York State Police took every step to ensure this individual was held accountable.”

Pierrepont Town Justice Robert G. Camp heard the charges and released Ms. Guyette under probation supervision until her next hearing, which is scheduled for 10 a.m. April 21.

Her attorney, Edward F. Narrow, tried to argue that she should be released on her own recognizance instead of having to report to a probation officer.

“I’ve known Mary Jo for a long time. She’s lived in St. Lawrence County forever and a day,” he said.

He argued that Ms. Guyette has made no attempt to flee in the months since the investigation against her began.

“In the severity of the case, I’m going to hold it to RUS,” or released under supervision, Judge Camp said.

Town officials have remained tight-lipped during the investigation. Ms. Guyette’s suspension and subsequent termination were not done publicly.

The town has an insurance policy against theft, but it is only enough to recoup about $12,000 of the missing money, town Supervisor Marie C. Regan said during a Town Council meeting Tuesday night.

In addition, The Hartford insurance company has threatened to drop the town’s policy by the end of the week unless the town provides a specific list of precautions it will take to prevent an incident like this from happening again.

This list will be provided, Ms. Regan said. The most important step is hiring a new part-time clerk who will help double-check the finances. The town did not have an assistant clerk for much of the time when money allegedly was being stolen.

The Town Council approved the hiring of Lori A. Hayes. Ms. Hayes served as the town court clerk until 2005. She will return to work 14 hours a week and will be paid $14.95 per hour.

The board also discussed increasing the size of the theft insurance policy, although no action was taken.

More than half of the missing court revenues were supposed to be paid to the state.

The town court is audited annually by an outside firm, which never uncovered any evidence of wrongdoing. Because of these precautions, the state will not require the town to repay what is owed, according to Ms. Regan.

Investigators determined that Ms. Guyette had manipulated the records before they were seen by the auditors, making it appear as if everything was above-board, Ms. Regan said.

“I have been told this is one of the most complicated cases they’ve ever seen,” she said. “I can’t tell you how this transpired, but it was a very sophisticated, brilliant case.”

Ms. Guyette’s arraignment originally was scheduled for today in Canton Town Court, but Mr. Narrow requested it be held Tuesday instead.

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