A Lincoln County woman never meant to hurt her co-workers when she embezzled money from the City of Dunbar to pay bills and living expenses after her husband lost his job, she told a judge Friday.
Kanawha Circuit Judge Carrie Webster sentenced 40-year-old Reneda Welch to spend up to one year in jail for embezzling a little more than $203,000 from the city while she worked there as an accountant.
Dunbar Mayor William Cunningham told Webster that Welch’s embezzlement was disheartening to the people she worked with, telling the judge he wished the case had gone to trial “so all this stuff could be brought out.”
In October, Welch pleaded guilty by way of information to two counts of embezzlement, admitting she created a fake employee for the city through which she embezzled the money between 2014 and 2016.
An information is a way of filing charges against a person, and that method of bringing charges usually indicates the defendant has agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in the case.
The West Virginia Auditor’s Office investigated the incident and also found the city did not have requirements for bookkeeping or receipts of transactions while Welch embezzled the money.
Webster told Welch and the city officials who were present that she hoped they all learned from this experience, saying no one is ever made whole after embezzlement.
“This is a significant breach of trust,” Webster said as she sentenced Welch. “I wouldn’t be sentencing you because you hurt the feelings of city council members that were your friends and colleagues. That happens ... but you were in a position of trust, and you took money so you could live a better life and you stole doing it.”
Webster gave Welch 60 days to report for her sentence, saying she wanted to balance justice with mercy by letting Welch get her medical affairs in order and spend time with her daughter before going to jail.
After she’s released from jail, Welch will have about six months to obtain a job and begin paying a little more than $102,000 in restitution to the City of Dunbar. To date, Welch and her family have paid $50,000 in restitution to the city.
Welch apologized to Cunningham and other city officials, saying the embezzlement was 100 percent her fault. She told Webster she began taking the money because her job with the city paid less than her previous job and her husband lost his job.
“I never meant to hurt anyone,” Welch said. “All the people I worked with at Dunbar were good people, and we were friends. We were close, and I never ever intended to hurt them as badly as I have, and I just hope they understand that and accept my apology.”
Before hearing Welch’s apology, Cunningham said he did not agree with mercy in Welch’s case, saying her embezzlement had cost the citizens of Dunbar a better city.
Cunningham said he and council members may have experienced buyer’s remorse for agreeing to accept the plea deal for Welch.
“The citizens of Dunbar need to know how this happened,” he said. “Not just some washed-over thing where some people won’t get their feelings hurt. It should’ve been out in the open. It should’ve been a trial, but the council said let’s try to go through and go with a plea of guilty and see how it falls out.”
Welch has been out of jail on bond since she was arrested in April 2018. She is due to report to jail on Feb. 20.