The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

June 26, 2013

Former Pineville town manager gets 18 months in prison

By Carra Higgins
Register-Herald Reporter

PINEVILLE — Former Pineville Town Manager Brandee Phillips-Ellis, 30, will spend 18 months in a federal prison followed by three years of supervised probation for using her employment position to embezzle money from the town, United States District Judge Irene Berger determined Tuesday.

Phillips-Ellis pleaded guilty in March to embezzling money from the town of Pineville and Berger imposed the maximum prison time based on the level of Phillips-Ellis’ actions and suggested guidelines from a pre-sentencing report.

Berger explained that when considering the sentence, she heavily weighed how the embezzlement of around $80,000 between March 2009 and December 2012 has negatively affected the town of Pineville and its residents.

“Your conduct affected many people,” Berger told Phillips-Ellis. “The conduct is serious, but the impact is serious and has the potential to be long-term. ... This sentence is necessary.”

Berger added that she hopes the sentence deters not only Phillips-Ellis, but also others, from engaging in embezzlement acts in the future.

Phillips-Ellis cried as she told the court that she had great remorse for her actions and that her own and her family’s reputation has been harmed, adding that she does not go into public in Pineville.

“I’m ashamed,” Phillips-Ellis said. “If I could take it back, I would.”

Pineville Mayor Tim Ellison, who had provided a letter before sentencing to the court explaining his thoughts about Phillips-Ellis’ actions, spoke briefly during the sentencing. Ellison told the court that because of Phillips-Ellis’ actions, the town has had to pay late fees and layoff employees because of the lack of funds for pay.

United Methodist Church Pastor Melissa White spoke during the sentencing on behalf of Phillips-Ellis. White told the court that during the last year she has gotten to know Phillips-Ellis on a more personal level and thinks that she is truly remorseful for what she did. White also said that she thinks Phillips-Ellis’ generation has a “sense of entitlement” and has difficulty understanding that they must work for what they have.

Phillips-Ellis’ attorney, John Mize, asked the court to consider probation and fewer months in prison. Berger explained, though, she thought the seriousness of the crime and the fact that Phillips-Ellis used “sophisticated means” to take the money warranted the sentence.

Phillips-Ellis explained to the court in March that she was able to take the money because of her role as city manager. In that role, she created false travel vouchers and purchasing requests, which enabled her to have payment checks from the city written to her. She then deposited the checks in her name into her personal bank account. The amount of the checks ranged from approximately $50 to $1,800, Phillips-Ellis said.

Officials discovered Phillips-Ellis had been taking money when she attempted to deposit a check into the city’s bank account in order to repay some of the money she had taken from the city.

Phillips-Ellis has since repaid most of the restitution to the town of Pineville, but will still owes approximately $10,000.

Phillips-Ellis also took funds from SAFE Housing and Economic Development (SHED) program by creating a false vendor. The SHED money has been repaid. Fines for the felony offense committed by Phillips-Ellis were not imposed. Berger said she determined that Phillips-Ellis does not have the financial means to pay them.

After the sentencing, Ellison told media outside the Federal Courthouse that “justice has been served” and he is looking forward to moving the town forward and “get back on track.”

Since Phillips-Ellis embezzled funds, council has put in place procedures that will help ensure the same thing does not happen in the future, Ellison added.

“There’s been a healing process for all of us,” he commented.

Assistant U.S. Prosecuting Attorney Eumi Choi prosecuted the case.

— E-mail: chiggins@register-herald.com