Huston serving time in Connell

Kristin M. Kraemer, Tri-City HeraldAugust 3, 2013 

Coyote Ridge

Dennis Huston, former Franklin County administrator who was sentenced to 16 years in prison for embezzling money from the county, will be serving at least part of that time at Coyote Ridge Correctional Facility in Connell.

RICHARD DICKIN — Tri-City Herald Buy Photo

For 22 years he siphoned money from Franklin County using his public works position to file false invoices.

Dennis M. Huston lost his job once the $2.8 million scheme came to light, but he's back in the county -- this time as a state inmate.

Huston, 66, is serving his 16-year sentence at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Connell.

Classified as a long-term minimum level offender, the Pasco man was transferred there after a Department of Corrections case worker decided it's the best prison in the state to house Huston.

That he's back in the county where he was a longtime employee, and where residents were the victims of Huston's massive fraud, were considerations.

But officials, who acknowledge it may be better that Huston's closer to home, said what's most important is that he is locked up.

"As long as he's at Coyote Ridge, he doesn't really pose a significant risk to community safety," said Chad Lewis, acting communications director for the state Department of Corrections.

Huston's crime was the largest public embezzlement in state history, so the concerns for some really are retribution, rehabilitation and restitution.

It was the second time in his life that he admitted to defrauding a government agency and pocketing the money to support his drug habit. This time he also used the money for gambling.

The Department of Corrections considers Huston a "low risk to commit the same crime," Lewis said. If he maintains a record of good behavior, he could be released in 2023 at the age of 76.

Franklin County Commission Chairman Rick Miller admits he personally wants "to make it as hard as possible on him. ... It is something that is just out of our control and we really can't do much about it, but you think, if you want somebody punished they wouldn't get any luxury."

Miller learned of Huston's whereabouts from the Herald.

He had hoped Huston might go to the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla just because it "sounds tougher," but knows it wasn't a violent or serious enough crime to warrant that type of facility.

So instead, Miller, who's more upset about the money that was taken, is focusing on whether Franklin County can get any of it back.

The county still has an active lawsuit against Huston and his wife, Noel, though it's been in a holding pattern since last year while lawyers focused on the criminal case.

"To me, it's crucial that (Huston) serves his full sentence and that we recoup some of the taxpayer dollars," Miller told the Herald.

Huston was the Franklin County Public Works accounting and administrative director when he was fired just days after his arrest in February 2012.

He pleaded guilty Jan. 31 in Franklin County Superior Court 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."

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'd been 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.

Huston's road department supervisors and county commissioners at the time decoded to keep him because he was doing good work and they believed there were "enough checks and balances" in place.

Yet, shortly after he was hired in Franklin County, Huston opened a bank account in the name of a Spokane company and started submitting invoices to the county for equipment and parts it never would receive.

FBI agents looked into an anonymous tip of allegations of misconduct in 2009, but closed the case after the nine-month investigation found no evidence of wrongdoing. Huston failed a polygraph test during that investigation.

Then in early 2012, Auditor Matt 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 discovered that Huston had long ago opened the account in the name of the legitimate company and claimed to be that company's sole proprietor.

Huston had cocaine in his possession when he was arrested on the job by Pasco police. He admitted he used the stolen money to cover his $100-a-day cocaine habit and to gamble.

Accounting records only go back to 1996, but Huston told police the scheme started in 1990.

Defense attorney John Jensen at Huston's sentencing said despite the amount of money taken, Huston didn't have a lavish lifestyle. "He was feeding his addiction," Jensen said.

The defense asked for a five-year term because of Huston's age, health and the fact he confessed to the crime before going to trial.

Assistant Attorney General Scott Marlow sought 15 years in prison, while county officials recommended the maximum 25 years.

Judge Vic VanderSchoor upped the prosecutor's recommendation by one year, saying he wasn't there to judge Huston as a bad man or good man but to "assess a just and fair sentence to a person who committed three crimes."

After his March 27 sentencing, Huston was sent to Washington Corrections Center in Shelton. All male offenders go through that center, where they receive medical examinations, testing and psychological evaluations.

Lewis said the first consideration for what prison a person will be sent to is the custody level. A case worker will look at everything ranging from the crimes committed and gang affiliations to program needs and the location of relatives.

"In most cases we try to put them near their family, in part because we're not trying to punish the family because the family didn't do anything wrong," said Lewis, with the Department of Corrections. "And what we've seen from data is offenders who get regular visits tend to commit less infractions" and enroll in more programs, he said.

Lewis said it isn't right to put the burden on the family to go out to the northwest tip of the peninsula at Clallam Bay if there is another suitable facility closer to the inmate's home in Eastern Washington. There are 12 prison facilities in the state, including eight major prisons and four minimum-security prisons for offenders nearing release.

Lewis couldn't say if Huston specifically has any program needs, such as treatment for his chemical dependency or gambling.

Coyote Ridge Corrections Center has a list of work and vocational programs, in addition to "offender change programs," such as religious activities, adult basic education and job hunting.

A department report shows that in 2012, it cost $64.85 a day to house an offender at Coyote Ridge. That number includes healthcare costs.

Lewis said just because Huston has been placed in Connell now doesn't mean he will serve his entire sentence there. Inmates can be transferred to a facility with closer supervision if they have infractions or they could be sent to a work camp with a less restrictive environment if they show positive behavior.

Huston can't yet be considered for a work camp because he must be within four years of his release.

Marlow -- who handled the criminal case because of a potential conflict with the Franklin County Prosecutor's Office -- said he won't second guess or question the decision to put Huston back in Franklin County.

"Department of Corrections is going to house him where it is most appropriate for DOC to house him," Marlow said. "... If housing him near family and friends, if that facilitates (retribution and rehabilitation) then that's a good thing."

Even though Marlow filed the theft case with a "conservative minimum" of about $1.8 million, he said the actual numbers that the state could prove added up to at least $2,842,939.

Marlow was successful at a May hearing in getting Judge VanderSchoor to order the full restitution.

However, both Marlow and VanderSchoor have separately said they don't know if Huston will be able to pay even a portion of that.

Jensen had tried to get the restitution amount lowered to $1.7 million. His client told the court that while working for the county, he actually processed some legitimate payments to Critzer Equipment, yet that money was included in the embezzlement amount.

Commissioner Miller said they will push on with the civil case and their attempts to collect something.

Based on Huston's face value, "He does not have any money looking at where he lives. But we know there is a lot of money somewhere, either spent or stashed away," he said.

They've asked to have the Hustons' assets frozen, and are trying to find where that money is to recover on behalf of the taxpayers, Miller said. Their home has been listed under Noel Huston, but county records don't show the couple owning any other property.

"I think there is a possibility of getting some back but I'm not sure. Just in my opinion, he does own a home, he does have some assets so there is a possibility of getting some back," Miller said, acknowledging that they're in the process of reviewing possibilities with the lawsuit.

"It was just a shame that this all happened this way. ... It just went on too long," he added. "What could have happened with all that money and all that time? It's sad because he was stealing from everybody, everybody who paid taxes at one time or another."

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