Hardwick Electric aims to pull plug on accused embezzler
St. Johnsbury, Vermont - February 3, 2011
More than a million dollars is missing, but how will the Hardwick Electric Department get that money back? The municipal utility is working to reclaim cash that investigators say was stolen by an embezzler.
Joyce Bellavance is accused of getting rich by stealing from 4,200 of her neighbors who get their power from the Hardwick Electric Department, where Bellavance formerly worked as the office manager. The utility says Bellavance is still cashing checks she gets from a retirement account that was supposed to follow a good career. So Hardwick Electric wants to pull the plug on that.
"We were operating with a leaking bucket," said Joe Wood, the chairman of the Hardwick Electric Commission.
Wood says Bellavance drilled the hole in the electric department's bucket; funneling funds from the utility into her own deep pockets. The former office manager allegedly skimmed nearly $1.5 million over a decade, spending it on luxury properties, jewelry, a wedding, and more.
"Which was a shock," said Eric Werner, the general manager at Hardwick Electric. "You look at the extravagance and the community this came from, and it's like two opposite ends of the spectrum."
Bellavance has denied several federal charges of fraud, but was in Caledonia County's civil court Thursday. The men who employed Bellavance and trusted her were there, too, asking the court to step in and help protect the utility.
The Hardwick Electric Department says Bellavance is drawing more than $2,400 a month from the Vermont Municipal Employees Retirement System. The suspected embezzler agreed to surrender half her monthly retirement payments into a fund for the electric department.
The 50/50 split will go as long as it takes for the Bellavance case to work its way through federal court. "So Ms. Bellavance could think of this on a long-term basis, going over it with her husband as well as the rest of her family, to understand the implications of what this may mean from here potentially to the rest of her life," defense lawyer John Pacht said.
Hardwick Electric says this is just one of many legal steps, but was happy with the plan and hopes it helps build back ratepayers' faith, that was badly bruised. "The community is coming to grips with it, slowly but surely," Wood said. "But having each of these steps take place is helping the community come to grips with it."
WCAX News asked Joyce Bellavance for comment but she declined. She let her lawyer do the talking in the courtroom. Again, she has pled not guilty to these fraud charges.
The utility says it now has more sophisticated bookkeeping techniques in place and has cash on hand to ensure good service as it continues down the long road of recovering its money.
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