Ex-Mountain State Justice employee sentenced for embezzlement

A federal judge on Thursday sentenced a former longtime office manager for the nonprofit Mountain State Justice to more than four years in prison and called the circumstances surrounding the wire fraud and tax evasion charges she admitted to earlier this year “particularly egregious.”

Kim Cooper, 55, of St. Albans, who admitted to cheating Mountain State Justice out of more than $1 million over 12 years, was sentenced Thursday to spend 54 months in prison, or 4½ years. The sentence handed down by U.S. District Court Judge John Copenhaver Jr. nearly reached the top of what federal advisory sentencing guidelines called for in Cooper’s case — 46 to 57 months. Cooper faced a statutory maximum of 25 years in federal prison, as wire fraud carries a maximum 20-year sentence and tax evasion, a maximum of five years.

Cooper was told she could remain out of prison through June 2, when she must self-report to a federal facility, which will be assigned through the Bureau of Prisons.

In handing down the stiff sentence, Copenhaver said he wanted to deter others from engaging in similar conduct. The judge also cited a criminal case from Cooper’s past that contained similar allegations. Cooper pleaded guilty to grand larceny by embezzlement in Wood County Circuit Court in the late 1990s. She was sentenced to spend between one and 10 years in prison, but the sentence was suspended and she served only 120 days in jail and a term of five years probation, according to a sentencing memorandum filed last week by Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Wright.

A year after her probation expired, Cooper began her scheme against Mountain State Justice. Cooper worked nearly 20 years for the organization that provides legal services for low-income West Virginians in civil lawsuits.

Cooper began working for Mountain State Justice in the late 1990s, performing clerical work. Her responsibilities grew over time and, eventually, she became the officer manager at the organization’s headquarters in Charleston.

The felony charges against Cooper were filed last year in the form of an information, which is similar to an indictment but can’t be filed without a defendant’s consent. An information also typically signals that a defendant has agreed to plead guilty and is cooperating with prosecutors.

Cooper admitted in January that she opened a secret bank account at WesBanco in her employer’s name and cashed checks that had been written to Mountain State Justice. She used the money to pay credit card bills, rent and car payments, along with other personal expenses. She also admitted to paying the expenses of family members with money stolen from her employer.

Cooper “cannot be trusted to handle or otherwise have access to money that does not belong to her,” Wright said.

As part of the deal she made with federal prosecutors, Cooper agreed to pay nearly $1.5 million in restitution to Mountain State Justice and about $378,000 to the IRS. Cooper never paid income taxes on the money she admitted taking.

Given Cooper’s age, employment status and negative net worth, prosecutors said, it’s doubtful she will make any significant payment toward those amounts. Mountain State Justice would receive all it is owed before the United States government received any restitution, prosecutors noted.

Besides secretly opening and maintaining the WesBanco account, Cooper would omit the attorneys’ fees checks from Mountain State Justice’s cash log and hide all mail from WesBanco, she admitted. She also sent false and fraudulent quarterly income statements via email to members of Mountain State Justice’s board of directors.

Mountain State Justice filed a lawsuit in Kanawha County Circuit Court against Cooper and two of her children in December. The complaint accused Cooper’s children of knowing about, but disregarding, their mother’s embezzlement scheme.

Cooper maintained Thursday that her children knew nothing of her financial crimes.

Reach Kate White at kate.white@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1723 or follow @KateLWhite on Twitter.

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