About that criticism of Wendy Stevens’ punishment …

The outrage over Wendy Stevens’ participation in the Kitsap County Superior Court’s felony diversion program, rather than full-scale prosecution, was predictable and understandable. The response, though, tends to ignore other priorities beyond the lightening of a caseload.

Stevens was charged with theft of $8,061.27 from Naval Avenue PTA. The PTA submitted documents suggesting the amount was higher, but the charge reflected how much Bremerton Police could verify.

Many commenters called her diversion agreement a “slap on the wrist.” One asked, “Who said crime doesn’t pay?” That this was Stevens’ second theft charge certainly did not earn her any sympathy. That Stevens wouldn’t do jail time gave figurative chest pains to those who first sought justice (i.e. jail time).

There is room, though, for those who think the $8,000 check and $61.27 in cash the PTA received in restitution was the best possible outcome, like the commenter who wrote, “The most important requirement, restitution to the victim, has been met.” The writer makes a point every bit as fair as those who say the county went soft. This is especially true in a society that over the past few decades has dared to ask, “What about the victim?”

In most criminal cases it’s nearly impossible for the perpetrator to make things whole for the victim. In theft cases it is possible. In this case the deal the attorneys crafted got the PTA at least part of the way there. This year’s PTA President Barbie Swainson told Chris Henry that many in the PTA were relieved, even though they didn’t get the apology they also asked for, at least not in court.

Naval Avenue PTA members might have felt whatever joy justice brings had Stevens been sentenced to jail time, but that joy might have come at the expense of the organization itself. The $8,061.27 it received as part of the diversion agreement might never have materialized, even if Stevens was ordered to pay it, had she gone through a trial and was sent to prison. Instead, the PTA got a check and some cash, fulfilling one of its primary objectives — surviving.

We don’t always get to satisfy our desire for justice and restitution. We sometimes have to pick one or the other. In August 2001 I was working for The Columbian in Washington’s Vancouver and wrote a business story about embezzlement. Much of the focus was the point that it’s often better to go after embezzlers civilly, rather than criminally. You don’t as often get to see the guilty one rotting in jail, but your business stays open.

While you can legitimately argue that there was not enough punishment in the Stevens case, it’s a mistake to overlook the value of the restitution to the PTA.

Two other elements each from the Stevens story and the one I wrote in 2001 match each other, and these are tangents. One is that Stevens is well liked and respected, a common trait in cases like this. In the 2001 story, my sources pointed out how surprised business owners are not so much when they discover they’re losing money, but by who is responsible. In one case, it was a bookkeeper who had been with the company 20 years.

The second point is that this entire episode could have been prevented if the simplest of financial controls had been in place. The person doing the books should not be signing the checks. All entities should be set up so someone tempted to steal will be dissuaded by the perception that someone else will notice. “Checks and balances are not designed to keep a determined thief from stealing,” fraud investigator David Marosi said in the 2001 story. “Checks and balances are designed to keep an honest person honest.”

If you’re in business or run an organization and you want to prevent something like this, I recommend you read the 2001 story. If you have a Kitsap Regional Library card you can read it online for free by going to the ProQuest Washington State Newsstand and searching the term “allmyne.”

10 thoughts on “About that criticism of Wendy Stevens’ punishment …

  1. I think part of the exasperation with this is the fact that Wendy Stevens had the audacity to have been doing this and ran for public office… somehow thinking it doesn’t matter or it wouldn’t come to light.

    In fact, sad to say, it probably wouldn’t have gotten much media attention if Mrs. Stevens hadn’t been running for public office. It is just all too common for non-profit organizations like PTAs and youth sports activities to lack the appropriate internal controls to prevent such behavior.

    Finally, given that this was her second offense, I think some jail time would have been appropriate. Seems to me that jail time and restitution could have been possible. Even if it was 30 days or less. At least it would have sent a loud and clear message to Mrs. Stevens that jail is not worth it.

  2. Kathryn,

    A psychologist I spoke to about embezzlement in 2001 spoke to your issue to some degree, saying people who do this compartmentalize what they’re doing and they find ways to justify it. No one wants to believe what they’re doing is wrong, so they don’t look at what they did objectively. It takes getting caught, sometimes, for reality to sink in.

    Steven Gardner
    Kitsap Sun

  3. A mixture of restitution and jail time was in order in any type of plea agreement. Whereas I agree trying to make the victim whole again (which did NOT happen here Steve) is the primary goal, a couple of months in jail perhaps would be more of a deterrent for her next theft.

    Just as perhaps a couple of months in jail after pleading guilty to her first theft would have prevented this crime. In another few years after the dust has settled, she’ll do it again.

  4. “We don’t always get to satisfy our desire for justice and restitution. We sometimes have to pick one or the other.”

    We do not get to pick. That decision is taken out of our hands. Do the victims always get a say as to punishment or restitution? Some victims are much more forgiving than others. Many times that forgiveness leads to more victims in the future. Why should we need to chose between justice or restitution? Neither by itself really solves the usual underlying issues. At times even both only delays the eventual repeating of a crime by those prosecuted. The judicial system does not really run on justice for a victim or treatment for those prosecuted. It relies on whose lawyer tells the best story and how the day has gone for the judge. Lies, smoke and mirrors, and fabrications are standard in the courtrooms. Truth and reality are usually not on the menu. Many who do wrong, justify it to themselves and nothing will change their minds. You have it, they want it, and they will do what they need to satisfy themselves.

  5. The problem with going light with the criminal on the first CAUGHT offense, or the second or third are the next victims.
    The most successful cons are likeable and seemingly trustworthy – we WANT to believe them – whatever they say.
    John says it well but rather than jail time the thief should do public restitution by scrubbing out public restrooms throughout the city or county wearing a jail uniform and under house arrest when not scrubbing toilets. The money earned going to the victim. Seems fair to me.

  6. Many of us are quite capable of understanding the full dynamics and priorities which can impact outcomes and decisions in this situation. We all have friends or colleagues who are community, elected, or business leaders – and we’d be shocked, hurt, or saddened if we learned they’d committed an illegal act. Our conflict would be expecting them to take responsibility, yet not wanting to see them harmed or taken from families and children. It can become a time for inner reflection regarding the depth of our values.

    That PTA received its money is certainly a good thing, but when the benefit of the doubt and leniency are extended to the ‘well-liked and respected’ and out of reach for those who aren’t – or perhaps don’t look like Stevens – citizens no longer believe or feel justice is blind and fair.

  7. It is interesting that in the news recently is statistics showing that the trust people feel for others is declining across the board. I think part of that is the ability for instant communications worldwide and how any infraction by citizens or elected officials can be streamed to millions instantly. What we see is theft, deception, and broken promises every day and every hour. This person committed a crime for whatever excuse and by doing so has colored the view of those in a similar position forever. Will any PTA or other group ever look at its volunteers with complete trust? If they do, will that just encourage another person to do the same thing? When you combine that with other information on scams, theft, and con jobs, it helps define the trust level of each individual for others, and the survey showed it is declining across the board.

  8. Some forty years ago – precomputer/cell phones – I had a business in Silverdale and noticed the till began to run $30. Short on a weekly basis…. Too frequently to be an accidental glitch somewhere.
    It had to be one or more people deliberately stealing. I trusted the people like family – most had been with me five years and more. Eventually one of my employees moved out of state and the thefts stopped.

    Stealing from non profits – to me – is even more despicable that donated money is stolen. The nonprofit is careless and sloppy with money that isn’t theirs.

    This woman has been caught twice and was running for public office!
    No big deal these days?

  9. In some cases, boards can be held directly or vicariously liable for criminal misconduct, gross negligence, or harm caused by individual board members to others. Naval Avenue Elementary School PTA’s decision might have been made in consideration of this as well.

  10. Institutional controls were not in place with the PTA. While that is no excuse for theft, it does speak to the need for organizations of all sizes to “trust, but verify”.

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