Hardwick utility recoups final settlement in long-running embezzlement case
HARDWICK, Vt. (WCAX) - A decade-long legal battle over one of the worst cases of embezzlement in Vermont history is over. The Hardwick Electric Department has finally recovered all of the more than $1.5 million a former employee stole in the early 2000s.
“Normally, these matters end up with a dime on the dollar, so 100% is pretty fantastic,” said Mike Sullivan, general manager of the Hardwick Electric Department. “It’s really time to let some wounds that have been festering for way too long to heal up and be behind us.”
Wounds inflicted not just by Joyce Bellavance, who stole the money, but also the St. Albans-based auditing firm Hardwick Electric claims should have caught her -- Kittell Branagan & Sargent Ltd. In 2012, Bellavance was convicted on federal charges including wire fraud and money laundering and sentenced to three-and-a-half years in a Minnesota prison. For 20 years she’d also have to send the utility half her municipal pension.
When we spoke to Joe Wood, the utility’s commission chairman back in 2011, he said the community was stunned. “This is family. And having somebody in the family violate your trust is hard,” he said.
Since her conviction, Bellavance has been forced to return more than $700,000 worth of assets including luxury cars, furniture, jewelry, her home in Hardwick, and other holdings. But those items and the pension still didn’t cover what she stole. Hardwick Electric sued Kittell Branagan & Sargent in 2016 for malpractice. The firm audited the utility’s financial statements from 2006 to 2010, when Bellavance stole most of the money. The utility announced Wednesday that they’ve reached a settlement and the auditor will pay the rest of what’s owed -- $960,000. “It really is the best case scenario,” Sullivan said.
The Vermont League of Cities and Towns insurance also paid a large portion of the funds that kept Hardwick Electric afloat at the time. Now, the utility is reimbursing VLCT with Bellavance’s municipal pension money.
Over the last 11 years, Hardwick Electric has recovered all the funds Bellavance stole, plus enough to cover legal fees. Sullivan says this final settlement gives the utility new opportunities to serve its customers. “We will absolutely be looking at how we can best utilitze that on behalf of our rate payers’ interests,” he said. Sullivan says the department will use the funds to keep rates stable for customers and they may use the money to complete some long-awaited capital projects or buy much-needed equipment.
Kittell Branagan & Sargent Ltd. did not respond to a request for comment.
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