Sheila Black was fired from her job as a Jefferson County court clerk in November 1996 after her employers accused her of stealing $79 of public money. But the Jeffco District Attorney's Office didn't charge her with a crime--felony embezzlement--until a full eight months later. And last month, after the county had spent thousands of dollars prosecuting her case, a jury acquitted Black in half an hour.
Why would the county go to such lengths when it couldn't even prove its case in court?
Black says her employers singled her out because she had filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Colorado Civil Rights Commission alleging that she was fired because she is an African-American.
"It couldn't be anything else," Black says, who insists she didn't embezzle anything. "There are no other options."
"I was devastated," she adds. "To even think I would take $79."
Pam Russell, spokeswoman for the DA's office, declines to discuss Black's case. Asked whether the criminal charge was filed in retaliation for Black's civil-rights complaints, Russell says, "I don't think that's germane, and we're not going to address that."
However, Russell and other county officials insist that, even though the county wound up losing the case, charging Black with a crime wasn't a waste of time.
Gary Muse, a Jefferson County sheriff's deputy and the lead investigator on the case, admits that the investigation cost much more than the amount that was allegedly stolen. But, he adds, "that's probably true of 95 percent of the cases we file. It's very costly to prosecute something. The amount of money wasn't really the issue."
For the county, the issue was that a public employee had been accused of taking public money--a charge that is always handled as a felony, even if the amount is a single penny.
"She has a right to a jury trial, a right she invoked," notes Russell. "We believe the evidence was absolutely there."
But Black says the evidence against her was sketchy at best, and the jury agreed.
Black began working for the county in 1988 as a secretary. In 1993 she became a clerk in the county court office, helping to file temporary restraining orders and garnishments.
The process of handling money was loose at best in the office, says Black, and it wasn't uncommon for employees to misplace cash. "We'd put [cash] on their desk, and they would lose the money," she says, referring to data clerks who would receive paperwork and money from desk clerks such as herself. "I've found it in trash cans and I've found it in typewriters."
In late September 1996, Black was in a car accident that kept her out of work for a month. While she was gone, her bosses began investigating her.
Within days of her return in October 1996, says Black, she was placed on administrative leave. Her bosses had found evidence that a customer had given her $39.50 in September but that there was no receipt for the transaction. Another employee, Linda Bowers, also claimed in a written statement presented during a meeting with Black's supervisors that she had seen Black holding two twenty-dollar bills and later "putting the money in her purse, which was down near her feet." Bowers did not return calls from Westword.
Black says the missing receipt involved an "indigent report" that had been misplaced. She says she later tracked down the report in the sheriff's department, but only after she had been fired. As for the two twenty-dollar bills, Black says Bowers might have seen her put her own money into her purse after she returned from lunch.
Soon after the meeting with the supervisors, Black's bosses fired her. "The timing was devastating," she says. "We had nothing. No Christmas, unemployment denied, nothing coming in--except for bills."
Black did manage to get unemployment benefits in January after appealing to the state Department of Labor, which found that she was not at fault for her own termination. The benefits lasted until April, when she found another job. She now works in a doctor's office.
By May 1997, the state personnel board agreed to hear Black's appeal of her termination. But her brother-in-law, attorney Bernard Black, who was handling the employment appeal, says that within a week of the July hearing he received notice from the county that it planned to press criminal charges. He says he decided to postpone the appeal of her firing until the criminal case was over.
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"Retaliation is the only thing I can think of," says Sheila Black of the reasons for the criminal charge. "We backed them into a corner. They thought it was just going to be the hearing and they were never going to hear from me again, and they were totally wrong."
Meanwhile, Deputy Muse continued with his investigation, tracking down every person he could find who had given Black money in her capacity as a clerk. He says he uncovered "specific inconsistencies that had to do with people who said they had brought in cash to pay for [temporary restraining orders] and had not been given a receipt, and there was no cash. It appeared from the investigation that the inconsistencies we looked at all involved her, where she had actually handled the money."
A former colleague of Black's at the clerk's office, who asked not to be identified, says, "I've known of other cases [after Black's firing] where money was missing and nothing came of it. After they let Sheila go and money was missing, nothing ever came of that."
Black says she is now contemplating a civil lawsuit against the state, adding that she wants to be reinstated at a different courthouse with back pay, retirement benefits and attorney's fees. Her termination appeal to the state personnel board is still pending.