Connell councilwoman accused in theft from Mesa farm

Connell's mayor pro tem is accused of stealing at least $160,000 from a Mesa farm through her work as a bookkeeper, using the money to pay her utility bills and property taxes.

Councilwoman Monica Lou Pruett made her first appearance Monday in Franklin County Superior Court on allegations she stole money from D&S Farms for the past 12 years.

Pruett, who was arrested Sunday by Franklin County sheriff's detectives, was ordered Monday to be held for 72 hours on investigation of first-degree theft and money laundering.

Prosecutor Shawn Sant requested that her bail be set at $100,000, based on the amount suspected of being stolen.

"I've got a concern because of the nature of the business," Sant said, referring to Lierman Business Services, which Pruett owns and operates. "If this is ongoing for this client, there's a potential for other victims."

Sant also said investigators don't know where Pruett's assets are.

Craig Johnson, a Pasco attorney hired by Pruett, called $100,000 bail excessive.

He said his client has lived in the community for more than 52 years, has been in business for herself since the mid-'80s and is a Connell council member.

"This investigation ... has been ongoing since April," Johnson said. "She's not a risk to flee."

Pruett, the former manager of the Connell Chamber of Commerce, was elected to the city council in 1999, according to Herald records.

Johnson argued that everyone in Connell has "been abuzz about this since mid-June" and if there were more potential victims, they would have come forward by now.

He said it "speaks volumes" that no one else has accused Pruett of any wrongdoing.

Court Commissioner Jeri Potts agreed with the defense and said Pruett's longevity in the community and lack of criminal history warranted a much lower bail.

Potts set bail at $5,000 but also said Pruett must turn over her passport to the jail if she is released.

As of 6 p.m. Monday, Pruett still was in custody. Prosecutors have until Wednesday to charge or release her if she doesn't post bail.

According to court documents, Franklin County sheriff's detectives began investigating the theft after Bill Swenson, owner of D&S Farms, said he found his farm owed about $100,000 to a Yakima company.

Swenson, who inherited the farm from his father, said he began investigating the farm's books.

Pruett, who provides bookkeeping and accounting services through her business, was hired in 2000. She reportedly was supposed to write checks for payments and provide period financial reports for $200 a month.

Swenson said he reviewed the monthly statements provided by Pruett and found her business was paid $200 a month for bookkeeping. But, he found other checks in varying amounts paid to the business that had not been included in the monthly report, documents said.

Swenson said he confronted Pruett about the extra payments in 2011, and she reportedly said, "That's what I cost."

Swenson determined his farm paid Pruett $11,000 last year, but just $2,400 was authorized, documents said.

Pruett was fired in April, and Swenson said he figured more than $56,000 had been overpaid to Pruett since 2005, documents said.

Swenson apparently then began looking at other suspicious payments and that's when he discovered D&S Farm checks had been used to pay Pruett's property taxes and Franklin PUD bills, documents claim.

The Franklin County Treasurer' Office verified payments by D&S Farms of more than $11,000 in 2007, 2008 and 2009, documents said. The payments were made on two of Pruett's personal properties -- her business and her Connell home, documents said.

One check was for $6,354.

The PUD payments were discovered when Swenson noticed an unusual number of payments.

Detectives got a warrant to search the PUD's records and found more than $13,000 was paid from September 2009 to January 2012 from the farm's account for Lierman Business Services and Pruett's North Fifth Avenue home, documents said.

Swenson also found several checks written to "Kenica," which is not a vendor the farm does business with. Investigators say Kenica is an account owned by Kent and Monica Pruett. Kent is Monica's husband.

About $5,000 in checks also had been paid to Kent Pruett, but he reportedly had not done any business with D&S, documents said.

On June 22, detectives searched Lierman Business Services and seized a desktop computer and hundreds of documents related to D&S Farms.

Pruett also was interviewed and reportedly admitted to altering D&S checks made out for $200 and endorsed.

"She described in detail her method of carefully using an erasing feature on her typewriter to alter the checks," documents said.

She also reportedly admitted to forging the name of the former D&S Farms manager on checks to write herself payments.

Pruett allegedly said she documented large overpayment checks to Lierman Business Services in the payroll portion of the monthly statements to make the payments more difficult to spot.

Pruett also told investigators that the Kenica account is used for her rental homes. She said she would deposit D&S checks into the account when a tenant didn't make a payment and the fund was low, documents said.

She also allegedly said she forged her husband's name on the checks made out to him and deposited them. She said her husband didn't know anything about the checks because she did the family's finances, documents said.

Investigators say Pruett's offenses involved a "high degree of planning on her part" by falsifying reports and altering checks, and that she abused her position of trust with D&S Farms.

"This ... caused considerable damages to the financial welfare of D&S Farms ..." documents said.

-- Paula Horton: 582-1556; phorton@tricityherald.com