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The Fletcher Fire & Rescue secretary who pleaded guilty last summer to stealing more than $300,000 from the department over seven years was sentenced to prison last week.
U.S. District Court Judge Max O. Cogburn Jr. sentenced Brenda Glenn Livingston to eight months in prison after she admitted that she had embezzled $336,000 from the department between December 2008 and October 2015. Cogburn also ordered her to pay restitution of $458,000.
Asked whether she had anything to say, Livingston, 62, stood and turned to two rows of friends and families seated in Courtoom 1 of the federal courthouse.
“I’m so sorry,” she said through tears. “I’m so sorry.”
Fire Chief Greg Garland noticed discrepancies in a budget report he had requested from Livingston on Nov. 16, 2015. When he asked for copies of recent credit card statements, she “lied to Garland and said she did not have the requested credit card statements,” according to a bill of information. Livingston left the bank later that day and withdrew $7,500 from her IRA at a local bank and used it to make a payment on the fire department credit card, prosecutors said. No money was recovered at the time.
“Livingston said she used the money to pay bills and buy presents and that the money was gone,” prosecutors said.
In court last Wednesday afternoon, Livingston’s two defense attorneys, Albert M. Messer and Theodore James “Ted” Besen, argued for mercy. Their client had no record before she was arrested for stealing from her employer and had otherwise contributed to her family, church and community, they said. She had sold her house in Mills River and her car, and given the proceeds in an effort to pay back the stolen department funds.
Messer argued that his client’s physical problems and mental state would make prison sentence harsh. He submitted a report from a physician with Mission Neurology about an examination in November 2015.
She suffers from Parkinson’s disease and had “acute mental status symptoms with worsening anxiety and depression,” the physician wrote. “At the time her husband was working on getting her established with a mental health provider.” Her Parkinson’s disease was causing “stiffness, slowness, tremor and balance problems," he added. "These symptoms are likely to be progressive.”
The defense also submitted letters from family members and friends who told of Livingston's Christian faith, service to her church and love of her family.
“She has lost everything but her faith and her children,” wrote Collette Worley, who said she was stunned last summer to hear that her friend had committed an act “so foreign and loathsome to her very core.”
“She has lost her marriage, her home and I fear, her health,” Worley said.
Livingston now lives with her daughter, Jennifer Smith, and Jennifer’s husband, a minister, in Mount Holly, near Charlotte. Livingston looks after the couple’s two young sons, who were 7 and 3 in July. “She is devoted, attentive and patient with them,” her daughter wrote. “The loss of her from our life would be devastating to them.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Don Gash urged the judge to adhere to federal sentencing guidelines, which called for 18 to 24 months in prison.
“This is a serious crime,” Gash said. “It wasn’t a momentary lapse of judgment. It was a long-term regularly committed theft from the fire department.” Had it not been for Livingston’s crime, he said, Fletcher firefighters who put their lives on the line to protect people and property could have had higher wages or more personnel and could have purchased equipment to help them do their jobs.
“Unfortunately,” he added, “it’s very easy for a lot of people to feel remorseful.”
Part of the judge’s role, he said, is to ensure that a sentence makes clear that a theft as large as Livingston’s will bring consequences. Granting her defense attorneys’ that she avoid prison sends a signal that “it’s OK to steal until you get caught and once you get caught we’re not going to do a whole lot to you. There has to be a meaningful sentence that says it’s not OK to steal.”
As for Livingston’s mental and physical conditions, Gash said, “The question is can the Bureau of Prisons accommodate that? Yes, the Bureau of Prisons can accommodate that.”
Judge Cogburn said it was “very difficult” to consider probation because the theft occurred “over such a long a period of time.”
“If you had that much money taken from you over that period of time and somebody told you they would not be able to pay it back, you would not be happy,” Cogburn said to Messer.
He sentenced Livingston to eight months in prison — departing from the sentencing guideline of 18 to 24 months for the amount of the theft.
“We do understand the court’s decision and we’re grateful that the judge looked at all the factors,” Messer said outside the courtroom. “In light of all the circumstances we’re pleased. She never had any kind of extravagant lifestyle. She certainly didn’t have to sell her home but she wanted to do the right thing.”
Cogburn also agreed to the defense attorney’s request that Livingston be allowed to remain free until she’s ordered to report to prison. Family members said they had been told she is likely to be assigned to a women’s prison in either West Virginia or North Florida.
Garland, the fire chief, said he was aware of the sentencing.
“I think the board’s pretty satisfied with the outcome,” he said, adding he did not know how the department might receive restitution. “I’m not even sure if the board’s actually discussed that.”
The circumstances that permitted the bookkeeper to steal $336,000 over seven years have been examined and corrected, the chief said.
“The board’s made numerous changes as far as the way the internal controls are done,” he said.
“We might as well be (satisfied) because she got what the judge gave her,” said Fletcher Fire and Rescue president Billy Wilson. He said the department had received some repayment but no proceeds from the sale of Livingston’s home. “No, we didn’t get that.”
Banking, he said, has been tightened up.
“Everybody has to look at it,” he said. “It’s not like it was before.”