Monday, May 17, 2021

Former Board of Control assistant sentenced to prison for embezzlement

by By Scott Shindledecker
| November 25, 2020 12:40 PM

A former Flathead Joint Board of Control employee accused of embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars over a span of three years has been sentenced to federal prison.

Johanna Estella Clark, 44, formerly of Kalispell, the former executive administrative assistant for the Board of Control, pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud in August 2020. The Joint Board of Control is an entity that represented fee-paying irrigators who use water distributed by the Flathead Irrigation Project.

As part of a plea deal, 12 counts of wire fraud, two for bank fraud and two for aggravated identity theft were dismissed.

Clark was sentenced by Judge Donald W. Molloy Tuesday to one year and one day. She originally faced a possible 52 years in prison and fines up to $1.5 million.

Clark also will be on supervised release for three years and she must pay restitution in the amount of $265,131.76.

Clark was indicted in February 2020.

Court documents indicate Clark, between May 2014 and May 2017, knowingly schemed and defrauded the Board by using several credit cards to draw on Board accounts without its knowledge or consent.

Charging documents indicate Clark made 13 purchases ranging from $502.26 for election signs for her campaign for House District 93 all the way up to $3,537.60 to buy computer software and a digital camera.

Other purchases included two camera lenses totaling nearly $3,000, a calving pen for $3,450, silver coins valued at $2,151, a foam mattress for $2,449, tires for $2,000, furniture in the amount of $1,849.

The total for all 13 purchases was $25,197.31.

On the bank fraud counts, prosecutors allege Clark wrote checks to herself drawn on the Board’s accounts, used board members’ stamps and deposited checks into her personal bank account.

The deposits totaled more than $3,300 and both occurred in 2016.

Clark was fired in 2017 after the FBI began an investigation.

Clark was defended by federal public defender Andrew J. Nelson and the lead prosecutor in the case was Timothy J. Racicot.

In a sentencing memo, Racicot wrote Clark “has a propensity for financial malfeasance.”

Racicot detailed Clark’s prior history of theft, which included defrauding a law office of $3,300 in 2000, shoplifting a coat from a store in Missoula in 2001 and writing a bad check to the Missoula Livestock Exchange in 2006.

Clark still had her supporters, though.

Three people wrote letters of support on Clark's behalf, including two past members of the Irrigation Board.

Longtime Mission Valley rancher Robert Dean Brockway, of Arlee, wrote to Judge Molloy saying “Johanna was a good person.” He also wrote Clark “worked day and night, and drove hundreds of miles to represent the board and worked to no end to defend the ranch and farming families.”

Jerry Laskody, a Mission District 3 Irrigation Commissioner, wrote Clark “inherited a position where record keeping was poorly organized, financial records were in shambles and Montana Code Annotated required reports were non-existent.”

Patti Duford Kugler, a former Lake County Treasurer, described Clark as a person “eager to learn so she could make accurate reports back to her commissioners.”

According to a previous story in the Missoulian, the Board, which was created in 1981, represented fee-paying irrigators that use water distributed by the Flathead Irrigation Project in three districts including the Flathead, Mission and Jocko.

Lake County District Judge James Manley ordered in 2018 the Board had to dissolve immediately and wasn’t a valid government entity since it disbanded in 2013.

The Board’s disbandment was the result of a battle among members over the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribe Flathead Water Compact.

In 2014, commissioners from the three districts voted to re-establish the entity.

But an election was never held and Montana law requires irrigation districts to have an election of landowners within the districts.

The three districts still operate, but are separate.