Durango’s former finance director was re-sentenced Friday to 90 days in jail and 20 years’ probation for embezzling more than $712,000 from town coffers over the course of 11 years.
“You’re going to be under the thumb of the criminal justice system for a very long time,” said 6th Judicial District Judge William Herringer in handing down the 20-year probationary sentence.
Julie Brown, 52, pleaded guilty in November to two felonies: embezzlement of public property and theft of $100,000 to $1 million. Brown worked in city finance for more than 17 years before resigning in October 2019 amid allegations of fraud.
Brown was sentenced in January to five years in prison, three years on parole and ordered to pay $712,298 in restitution to the city. But Herringer agreed to suspend that sentence and reconsider it if Brown showed a good-faith effort at repaying the restitution.
Since then, Brown has paid about $439,511 in restitution, draining her 401K and other liquid assets.
Herringer said sentencing Brown to prison time would be purely punitive and not rehabilitative. Additionally, prisoners typically serve only about a third of their sentences as a result of early release for good behavior, and it would cost taxpayers about $45,000 per year to house her with the Department of Corrections, he said.
“I don’t know that I’ve had a property crime, in the eight years I’ve been doing this, that has occupied as much of my thinking as this case has,” Herringer said before sentencing. “It’s a case where I think there’s just really difficult considerations to balance.”
Brown made good-faith efforts to repay the stolen money, Herringer said, and she has obtained employment in Garfield County enabling her to keep making payments.
But he said Brown’s embezzlement involved planning, repeated actions over multiple years and a significant sum of money.
“I don’t believe you are a risk of committing future offenses,” Herringer said. “I could certainly be wrong about that. If I am, I have the discretion to sentence you to a very long time in prison on this case.”
Herringer also gave Brown the option to apply for work release in Garfield or La Plata counties, which would allow her to work during the day but she would have to report to jail at night. But if she goes that route, she would have to report to jail for a year.
Brown must report to jail or the work-release program on July 9.
Brown is expected to pay $1,200 per month to the city for about 18 years to complete her restitution. A collections investigator will ensure she pays the maximum amount possible even if her income changes.
During Friday’s hearing, Brown’s defense lawyer, Richard Jaye, said his client did everything the court asked her to do.
Her sister, Laurie Gray, also spoke, saying Brown has taken responsibility for her actions.
“She’s done everything she can in her power to pay back the money,” Gray said. “Everything they owned, they’ve basically sold. She lost her career, her licenses, her marriage. ... She’s trying to turn that around.”
Prosecuting attorney David Ottman argued the stolen money cost the city opportunities to provide for the residents of Durango.
Durango Mayor Pro Tem Barbara Noseworthy read a statement approved by City Council.
“The only way we believe we can begin the process of healing and restoring trust in our municipal government is to see this sentencing through with full consequences for the actions and crimes Ms. Brown committed,” the letter says.
City Council emphasized the harms caused by Brown’s actions, including erosion of public and staff trust, lost financial opportunities and additional expenses to examine and shore up city finances.
According to an arrest affidavit, Brown approved checks from the city of Durango to Animas Professionals in her role as finance director. From there, she deposited the checks into her personal bank account.
Court records show Animas Professionals dissolved in 2010, and was owned by Bill Brown, Julie Brown’s father-in-law.
Since October 2019, the city has revamped its internal processes to double-check financial records, launched an external audit specifically designed to catch fraud and updated its policies to match best practices.