ST. GEORGE — The woman who admitted to stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from a local real estate company will spend two years in federal prison, while the losses incurred by the theft was so significant the business was unable to recover and closed it’s doors — for good.
During a hearing held via video feed at the U.S. District Court in St. George on Wednesday, 52-year-old Enid Brown of St. George appeared before U.S. District Judge David Nuffer for sentencing on one count of wire fraud on ReMax First Realty, a charge she pleaded guilty to in June.
The case stems from an investigation that was set in motion when a local real estate firm discovered that nearly $350,000 was missing during an internal audit. Once they discovered the discrepancy, they met with Brown who admitted to taking the money and said the theft started in March 2016 and continued until January 2019.
The theft took place while Brown was working as the firm’s office manager/controller, which gave her access to the company’s bank accounts, according to charging documents filed in federal court.
Brown told her supervisors she withdrew money from ATM machines and using Venmo, a digital wallet service that allows users to make and share payments with friends, to transfer money to her children. She also admitted to altering the company bank statements in order to hide the losses and discrepancies that existed between the accounts to steal about $150,000, the defendant estimated.
When the company realized through a review of the bank records that more than $374,000 was missing, they decided to go to the police and the case was later picked up by federal prosecutors, where she was charged with felony wire fraud.
During Wednesday’s hearing, prosecutor Jay Winward said this case was either the fourth- or fifth-largest financial fraud case reported in Washington County over the last several years that involved embezzlement by company employees.
Winward also said betrayal was one of the more troubling aspects of the case in that Brown “took money for her own gain from the people that cared about and employed her.”
He went on to say the defendant used the money for trips to Fiji, shopping sprees, to pay for her children’s housing and college tuition, along with other personal expenses by stealing money from the business accounts. Further, he said, she also took funds that were being held in trust accounts, which was “public money” he said, actions that not only hurt the real estate company but the brokerage firm that was harmed as a result and its reputation left tainted.
“She needs to pay every dime back of the 359,000 plus,” Winward said.
Dell Pulsipher, one of the partners that owned ReMax First Realty, also spoke during the hearing and outlined what happened to the company in the wake of the theft.
“What has happened with our company since this time is that it no longer exists,” Pulsipher said, adding Brown’s crimes have destroyed the partnership that she had garnered the complete trust of.
“But you abused it and took it away,” he said.
The defendant’s actions also took money from his family, he said, including funds that were earmarked for his own son’s college education, adding that Brown used the stolen funds to send her own children to college, when he and his wife “had to go to other sources for that.”
Another partner said that when the audit revealed that trust funds were also taken, which was “the public’s money,” he said, the first order of business was to come up with enough money to reconcile those accounts, which was done by the following morning. To do that, he said, the group had to take out loans, deplete their savings and garner funds from wherever they could to make it happen.
John Ames, a CPA and ReMax partner, also addressed the court, saying that Brown’s actions were devious, planned and calculated. He also said the company had been there for the defendant during her tenure, and even helped when she was faced with financial challenges. Even as they did so, he said addressing Brown, “you continued to steal from us.”
Ames continued by saying that long before the discovery, the partners went through months of going into their own pockets to reconcile the accounts and keep the business afloat, completely unaware the financial shortfalls were the direct result of the defendant’s actions. The defendant “was stealing from the company the entire time.”
Even worse, he said, the defendant was well aware of the financial bind the company was in, since she was present during the meetings where those issues were discussed. Even then, he said, the defendant continued using the company accounts as “her personal piggy-bank.”
He closed by saying that the partnership that had been together for more than 20 years was destroyed in the aftermath of the theft and in the end, the business was lost.
“Shame on you – forever,” he said.
The defendant’s daughter, Liala Brown, also addressed the court and was speaking to the partners by saying, “On behalf of our family I would like to share our deepest apologies to ReMax First Realty for this terrible ordeal.”
She went on to say the situation nearly destroyed her family, adding “we were completely betrayed and blindsided by the actions of my mother.”
She also said that her mother is learning and growing, is more transparent in her actions, and has done many good things adding that her family is healing after the many difficulties they’ve endured over the past year. She closed by asking that her mother be sentenced to “some type of home confinement” to be closer to her family.
Brown also addressed the court by saying she takes accountability for her wrongful actions, and added “I am regretful and humiliated for what I have done.”
She also said she was deeply sorry to the partners for the harm her actions inflicted.
The defendant went on to say that part of her Polynesian culture involves deep love and loyalty to family, traits that were, in part, responsible for skewing her judgment, and that her actions were fueled by her desire to help others.
She also said she completely responsible for the losses suffered by ReMax, and is “committed to paying the company back and making them whole again.”
Prior to sentencing, Nuffer commented on this particular crime, as well as a number of other recent cases involving fraud by employees that has left many businesses with significant losses. “It’s very disturbing to me,” he said.
“This is one of many egregious financial crimes I’m seeing in the St. George area,” Nuffer said, adding that many are committed by those in a position of trust who are employed by companies that treat them like family.
The effects extend far beyond this case, he said. “These crimes have a ripple effect across the community.”
He then sentenced Brown to serve 24 months in federal prison and be placed on three years probation upon her release. She was also ordered to surrender to the U.S. Marshal’s Office or to the federal prison facility she is assigned to by noon on Feb. 12.
Nuffer also recommended that Brown be placed at the Federal Correctional Institution in Victorville, California, located approximately 85 miles northeast of Los Angeles.
Brown was also ordered to pay $329,262 in restitution to the company. During incarceration, she will be required to pay a percentage of her earnings while in custody, the judge said, as well as a percentage of the money she receives from outside sources while in prison.
Moreover, since the defendant included donations to her church as part of the budget submitted to the court, and one that prosecuter Winward strongly objected to, the judge prohibited the defendant from making any charitable contributions until her debt is paid off — including any donations to her church.
The defendant was ordered to forfeit any proceeds or property garnered from her illegal conduct or which helped facilitate the scheme.
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