Anne S. Darrin, a former Columbia village manager, pleaded guilty yesterday to stealing about $65,000 in village funds during a four-year period to pay for personal expenses, ranging from cellular phone bills to aprons for a family-owned restaurant.
The embezzlement, which officials put at more than $120,000, focused intense attention on village finances and deepened a rift between the 10 villages and the Columbia Association, which provides much of their funding. The case also highlighted how much the Dorsey's Search Village Board relied on its once-trusted manager.
After listening to her attorney explain the significance of her guilty plea, Darrin, 49, told a Howard Circuit Court judge yesterday that she wanted a chance to explain. "I'm just anxious to tell my side of the story in front of you," she said.
Darrin will get that chance at her sentencing hearing, scheduled for Nov. 18. She faces up to 15 years in prison.
Howard County Assistant State's Attorney Bernard L. Taylor said in court that state guidelines suggest a sentence ranging from probation to six months in prison but that he would request a longer jail term.
Taylor declined to comment on the case or plea agreement, under which he will drop the remaining eight theft charges.
The guilty plea ends an investigation that began in March 1998 and amassed a mountain of evidence. Prosecutors had planned to call 59 witnesses during a trial that had been expected to last several weeks.
Though much of the case was made public in federal court -- where Darrin and her husband, John, filed for bankruptcy protection -- prosecutors revealed new details about the scheme yesterday in an 11-page statement of facts.
Darrin embezzled thousands of dollars of village money to help finance her son's Baltimore restaurant, the Strand, prosecutors said.
Besides helping to secure loans for the restaurant with village money, prosecutors said, Darrin used village funds to buy aprons, a safe and an easel for the business.
She also used $31,692.84 to pay off her personal credit card. Darrin claimed she used the money to pay for damage caused by flooding at Linden Hall, the village center, prosecutors said, but she could provide no documentation supporting that assertion.
Prosecutors said Darrin embezzled the money between January 1994 and January 1998. During that time, "there were only seven months where the defendant did not make unauthorized payments," court records show. "An examination of the chronological list will show a relationship between the number of checks written monthly and events such as the preparation of and opening of The Strand" in March 1997.
Darrin and her husband filed for federal bankruptcy protection just before she resigned as village manager in March 1998. The bankruptcy case ended two months ago, when Darrin agreed to pay an insurance company $50,000 after the company paid the village association $116,485.74 to compensate it for the thefts.
The unraveling of Darrin's scheme came in 1997, when Robert Conors, a member of the village board at the time, noticed irregularities in village financial statements.
He was particularly suspicious of a general category called "Other Expenses" that seemed inflated.
That summer, Conors also noticed that Darrin forwarded the year-end financial report directly to the Columbia Association, skipping review by the village board.
In November 1997, Conors decided to help Darrin use a computer accounting program. Darrin would call out the amount of receipts, and Conors would type the figures into the computer. Conors grew suspicious when Darrin read out a $100 bill from an office supply store. Conors said he quickly grabbed the receipt from Darrin's hand -- it was for about $2,000.
"I expected something like that [a discrepancy]. I really wasn't startled," said Conors, now the village board chairman.