Huston sentenced to 16 years in Franklin County embezzlement scandal

Tri-City HeraldMarch 27, 2013 

— The Franklin County official who led to the unraveling of Dennis M. Huston’s 22-year-long embezzlement scheme said it was a brazen and manipulative assault on the county’s residents.

Auditor Matt Beaton spoke for 10 minutes Wednesday in Franklin County Superior Court about the effect the theft of at least $2.8 million has had on one of the state’s poorest counties.

Huston — who reportedly used the money to fuel his cocaine and gambling habits — was not gripped by the demons of addiction, because too much planning went into the well-managed crime, Beaton said.

He asked Judge Vic VanderSchoor to give Huston a 25-year sentence and “start the process today of restoring peoples’ faith in local government. ... Have the courage to see to it that crime doesn’t pay in Franklin County, Washington.”

Though VanderSchoor didn’t go with the maximum sentence, he did give Huston one year above the prosecutor’s recommendation and ordered the 66-year-old Pasco man to serve 16 years in state prison.

“I’m not here to judge Mr. Huston as a bad man or as a good man. That will be done by someone else besides me,” VanderSchoor said in court. “I’m here to assess a just and fair sentence to a person who committed three crimes.”

“By committing these crimes, Mr. Huston has violated the trust of each and every citizen of this county, and his actions have had an unknown but certainly economic effect on this county and every one of its citizens,” he said.

Defense lawyer John Jensen had asked for a five-year term because of his client’s age, health and his confession to the crime. He compared Huston’s case to other notable cases across the country — like Peter Madoff, who got 10 years for his role in his older brother’s multibillion-dollar Ponzi scheme — and said the shorter prison sentence is appropriate because Huston took much less money.

“Despite the amounts of money that we talked about, there was no lavish lifestyle whatsoever,” Jensen said. “Nobody in all this investigation pointed to Mr. Huston, and said he was really living high on the hog, and that’s because he was feeding his addiction.”

Assistant Attorney General Scott Marlow had sought a 15-year term.

He said a message needs to be sent to prevent other government employees “from going down the same road,” and added that Huston only took responsibility when pushed to the end by accepting a plea deal on deadline.

The state is willing to bear the costs of Huston’s incarceration and likely medical costs since it’s doubtful he will pay restitution, “so we have to pound our flesh elsewhere,” Marlow added. “We put too much trust in him not to hold accountable.”

Huston was the Franklin County Public Works accounting and administrative director when he was fired in February 2012.

With a federal conviction already on his record for defrauding a government agency to support his habits, Huston admitted Jan. 31 that he pocketed the county’s money in what’s being called the largest public embezzlement case in state history.

Huston pleaded guilty to first-degree theft, money laundering and cocaine possession.

The nondrug charges included three aggravating factors that the crime was a major economic offense because: it involved a high degree of sophistication and planning; it occurred over a lengthy period of time; and Huston used his “position of trust, confidence and fiduciary responsibility.”

In filing the case, Marlow went after Huston for a “conservative minimum” of about $1.8 million.

Marlow handled the case because of a conflict with the Franklin County Prosecutor’s Office. Prosecutor Shawn Sant is proceeding with civil litigation against Huston and his wife, Noel.

On Wednesday, Marlow said he’s asking for the full restitution of $2,842,939 to the county.

Jensen told the court he needs to review the paperwork. If the defense doesn’t agree to the amount, a hearing will be scheduled.

Huston wiped tears from his face during the one-hour hearing before 36 spectators. Though Beaton, Franklin County Commissioners Rick Miller and Brad Peck, Sheriff Richard Lathim and other county employees were in the audience, the majority of people were there to support Huston.

Huston only addressed the court for 22 seconds, saying he let down his lawyer, co-workers, friends and family “and for that I’m very, very sorry.”

He was barely audible when he also said he thinks he can change from this point on.

Pastor John S. Hergert of Pasco’s First Lutheran Church was the only other person to speak on Huston’s behalf, saying people can be broken and that can cause them to do things they really know are not right.

Hergert said no one excuses what Huston has done, but he wanted the court to know that Huston is a man with a caring heart who also has positively affected the lives of many people.

Huston started working for Franklin County as an accountant in May 1989, about eight months after he was paroled by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. He was convicted of stealing $142,000 in 1986 while he was a financial officer with the federal Bureau of Reclamation in Montana.

He didn’t tell his new Franklin County boss about his previous conviction until he was on the job for two months. He only revealed his past after his probation officer threatened to tell the county if Huston didn’t do it himself.

When Huston was suspected of falsifying an invoice and pocketing $21,000 to $40,000 for tires bought but never received, FBI agents spent nine months looking into the matter but closed the case in February 2010 after finding no evidence Huston embezzled county money. Huston failed a polygraph test during that investigation.

Then in early 2012, Beaton realized the county was paying bills to Critzer Equipment even though the Spokane business had been closed for more than 10 years.

Pasco police Officer David Yates soon discovered that Huston had opened a bank account in the name of the legitimate company within a year of starting work in Franklin County and soon was submitting false invoices to the county for equipment and parts.

Huston had cocaine on him when he was arrested by Pasco police. He admitted he used the stolen money to cover his $100-a-day cocaine habit and for gambling. Accounting records only go back to 1996, but Huston told police the scheme started in 1990.

Beaton said Huston isn’t short on intelligence and cunning because he built a reputation as a generous and kind member of the community by giving money — possibly the county’s money — to charitable causes, helping out with local political campaigns, mentoring kids and being active in his church.

Huston also used the sympathy of others to manipulate them and would become emotional when someone suspected him of wrongdoing, asking how long he’d have to pay for his past mistakes, Beaton said.

Yet the magnitude of what Huston did this time around is far more than a property crime, he said.

The theft “changed the trajectory of Franklin County forever” — hard-working employees haven’t seen a cost-of-living adjustment for four years because of shrinking finances and who knows how many deputies couldn’t be hired, what safety equipment couldn’t be bought or the number of juveniles released early from detention because the money wasn’t in the county coffers.

“The human cost is unknowable because it’s hard to measure what never happened,” Beaton said.

Commissioner Peck said when Franklin County cut 10 percent of its work force, a good number of those could have been avoided if that money had been there.

And Chairman Miller reminded the court that the embezzlement affects all 80,000 current county residents, in addition to those who have moved away or died over the years.

-- Kristin M. Kraemer: 582-1531; kkraemer@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @KristinMKraemer

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