Courtesy of The Pensacola News Journal
March 17, 2010
Tina Mitchell manipulated the books of five homeowners associations to steal $856,126.
She also manipulated hundreds of ordinary people.
Circuit Judge Terry Terrell on Monday sentenced Mitchell to 30 years in state prison followed by 30 years probation.
"She robbed people of their lives," Susan Moody, owner of Montgomery Management Associates, said as she wept on the witness stand during Mitchell's sentencing hearing. "She robbed people of their money."
Mitchell embezzled the money between 2006 and 2009 while she worked as a property manager for Montgomery Management Associates, which handled bookkeeping for homeowners' associations.
Terrell ordered Mitchell to pay restitution, but it's unlikely she will ever have the money to do so. Nor do many of the associations and their dues-paying members have ample insurance to cover their losses.
Mitchell was making more than $78,000 a year selling Mary Kay products and a $900 a week salary from Montgomery Management.
She said she spent more than $300,000 of the stolen money to help friends and other women start their own Mary Kay businesses. She spent $40,000 helping families pay bills and mortgages. She spent another $100,000 on her own Mary Kay business.
The rest of the money covered the year-to-year losses of her cosmetic business and on her day-to-day expenses.
With a number of homeowners association members looking on, Mitchell said she suffered from a bipolar disorder that influenced her behavior.
"I stand before you totally ashamed, embarrassed and remorseful," she said.
Mitchell altered books and forged documents to hide deficiencies in the pilfered accounts. She also attempted to hide some of the shortfalls by diverting money from one association account to others.
"In heights of the mania, I thought I was helping people. I didn't realize I was hurting people," she said. "I never realized how much money it was."
A breach of trust
Moody said Mitchell devastated her business, left her subject to years of litigation, violated the trust of her customers and made her ashamed to face the homeowners.
"I personally felt like I have let them down because I trusted an employee and now I feel robbed," Moody said. "I can't continue on facing people. I'm humiliated by the fact that I trusted so much."
Assistant State Attorney Troy Bouk presented a number of victims who said they were devastated by Mitchell's thefts.
"Everyone had placed their trust and faith in Ms. Mitchell," Bouk said.
Mitchell sat hunched next to her attorney, Andy Marks. At times, she buried her forehead in the palm of her hand.
A visibly upset Bouk said that he was curious why Mitchell didn't help him tell him where the missing money went sooner than the day of her sentencing so he could have located some of the people who got it.
"How would I be able to verify that what you said here is true?" Bouk asked.
"I spoke from my heart today, and that's how you will know it is true," Mitchell answered.
Cheryl Pyle, president of the Heron's Forest Property Owners Association, estimated Mitchell's thefts involved money paid by nearly 450 homeowners.
Pyle discovered Mitchell's misuse of funds.
"When word came down that she was arrested, there was shock and horror," Pyle said. "It has not been a pretty picture."
James Rigby, maintenance supervisor for Sailwind Condominium Association of Gulf Breeze, said the thefts have been difficult on residents, many of whom are elderly and live on fixed incomes.
"A 96-year-old homeowner came up to me and cried on my shoulder, worried she is going to lose her home," he said. "These people felt we were doing a job for them. She misled them and took their money. These are people who may lose their homes."
Much of the money stolen from the associations was used to help pay for long-term lines of credit taken out in the wake of Hurricane Ivan in 2005 and Hurricane Dennis in 2005. Without that money, many of the homeowners face additional assessments and increased fees to help cover what was stolen.
"We were totally duped," said Nancy Doig, a Sailwind resident and board member. "It's been a nightmare this year. Hundreds of hours we've put in to fix what she broke. There's no way she can pay back almost a million dollars. She needs to go to prison."
Sailwind Condo Assn. loses money to embezzler
Woman pleads guilty to embezzlement of $856K