By Lynda Jones, Editor-in-Chief
Officials of the Polk County Publishing Co., Inc. (PCPC) initiated legal proceedings Friday, July 18, that could lead to the largest embezzlement case ever tried in Houston County.
Alvin Holley, publisher of the Houston County Courier (a division of PCPC) and owner of PCPC, along with Kelli Barnes, operations director for PCPC and the Houston County Courier, met Friday with Houston County District Attorney Donna Kasper and a detective from the Crockett Police Department.
At that meeting, Holley filed a formal complaint and presented financial records alleging that a former employee, Jeannine Rhone, embezzled at least $263,476.22 in the year 2012.
According to the Texas Penal Code, theft of property (including money) valued at more than $200,000 is a first degree felony. The law stipulates that an individual found guilty of a felony of the first degree shall be punished by imprisonment in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice for life or for any term of not more than 99 years or less than 5 years; and, in addition to imprisonment, an individual adjudged guilty of a felony of the first degree may be punished by a fine not to exceed $10,000.
Rhone was general manager of the Houston County Courier from Nov. 1, 2001 to March 10, 2014. She was the newspaper's administrative assistant/bookkeeper from July 2000 to November 2001, and administrative assistant/ad composer from April 1999 to July 2000. She held other positions at the newspaper over the course of several prior years, including classified advertising and composition.
On Friday, March 7, Holley granted Rhone a temporary leave of absence because she was suspected of, at the very least, doing a poor job of bookkeeping.
In a PCPC cover letter presented along with evidence to the Crockett Police Department and the Houston County District Attorney's Office, it is alleged that on that same day (March 7), a company accountant determined Rhone was embezzling money from the Houston County Courier. Rhone's employment was terminated the following Monday, March 10.
As a result of the company's internal investigation, it is alleged that Rhone embezzled $208,463.43 from the expense account at the Houston County Courier during the 12-month period of 2012.
The investigation also indicates five companies (including CPEnergy Entex, Verizon Wireless, Citi Bank, Dish Network and TXU) received payments from Houston County Courier funds, for accounts not belonging to the Houston County Courier, according to the PCPC allegations.
PCPC believes criminal investigators will find sufficient evidence that Rhone paid personal bills, including gas, cell phone, satellite service, electricity and sometimes her house note, with Houston County Courier funds. This amount totals $15,495.29 for the year 2012, according to the allegations made Friday.
"There is further evidence that some family members may have been involved in forging signatures and taking money. Rhone also issued additional checks from the expense account, made out to her family members during the same year, totaling $32,705.36. Another $6,812.14 is either automobile gasoline charges by several family members and/or unexplained expenses not related to Courier business," according to the allegations included in the letter to authorities.
"Rhone was not keeping an accounting of pre-paid advertising transactions, and because 2012 was an election year and all political advertising is pre-paid, we have reason to believe more money was taken than we can account for," the company letter alleges.
According to the allegations made Friday, PCPC has further evidence that Rhone continued to take money through 2013 until her termination date in 2014. It is unknown how far back the embezzlement goes, but PCPC suspects it started on a small scale many years ago and grew over time. The Texas Statute of Limitations for this offense is five years.
The findings submitted by PCPC to the district attorney and CPD were compiled directly from electronic check copies and bank statements obtained from a Crockett bank where the Houston County Courier does its business.
Kasper said the CPD and her office will examine the evidence delivered by Holley and Barnes, conduct an investigation and proceed with due process of the law.
"Eight years ago I had a heart transplant and trusted my employees to take care of the newspapers," Holley said. "It (the alleged imbezzlement) does disappoint me in Jeannine and the trust I placed (in her)."
Rhone was a resident of Grapeland during her tenure at the Houston County Courier. She and some family members reportedly moved out of Houston County after her termination at the newspaper.
Friday's filing of the complaint was the first step in the legal process. No charges against Rhone have been filed at this time. As in all criminal cases, a suspect/defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty by due process of law.
"The Houston County Courier staff works hard to earn the trust and respect of the community. Although the situation is painful, we will report this news story as it continues to develop, just as we would if it was happening to someone else, because we are committed to providing our readers with an accurate accounting of the news in Houston County," Barnes said.