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Wednesday, 11 January 2017 15:08

Sequoyah Fund embezzler sentenced

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Embezzling nearly $1 million from The Sequoyah Fund in Cherokee will land the organization’s former executive director in federal prison for more than two years, U.S. District Judge Martin Reidinger decided at a Dec. 15 sentencing hearing.

In June, Nell Leatherwood pleaded guilty to 50 counts related to an embezzlement scheme she conducted between January 2010 and her resignation in November 2013. Over the three-year period, Leatherwood repeatedly misused the corporate credit card for personal expenses, with the bills later paid using Sequoyah Fund dollars without the knowledge of the organization’s board members, according to court documents. Those charges totaled about $900,000, though court documents noted that “thousands of dollars” in purchases made by “another individual” were included in that number. However, the other individual was not named. 

Court documents showed that Leatherwood embezzled money through another means as well. Between December 2012 and November 2013, the prosecution said, Leatherwood wrote 47 checks to herself from The Sequoyah Fund account, forging board members’ signatures in order to cash the checks or deposit them for her own personal use. The checks totaled about $65,000, court documents say. 

Maximum penalties for 49 of the 50 counts to which Leatherwood pleaded guilty are 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, with one of the counts carrying a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. 

However, Leatherwood will serve only 27 months in prison with no fine. While the judgment gives a penalty of 27 months for each of the 50 counts, the sentences are to be served concurrently, meaning all at the same time instead of one after the other. 

In addition to prison time, Leatherwood will be required to pay a $5,000 assessment, as well as $545,708 in restitution to The Sequoyah Fund. She won’t have to pay interest, however, and she will be required to pay only $50 per month, beginning 60 days after her release. At that rate, it would take 909 years to complete the restitution payment. 

Established in 1997 and reorganized in 2006, The Sequoyah Fund operates under the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians as a community financial institution, issuing loans and financial services on the Qualla Boundary to encourage community development. Tribal dollars and grants from non-tribal sources — including substantial ones from the federal government — fund the organization. 

Russ Seagle, who took over as executive director when the embezzlement scheme was discovered, said that the organization has since revised its policies and procedures to prevent such a thing from happening again. These days, duties involving financial transactions are divided up between multiple people, so that no one person can handle a transaction from start to finish and thus fall prey to temptation. 

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