Irish sentenced to 6 years for Grand County embezzlement case
March 15, 2016
One of Grand County's most high profile legal sagas came to a close last week when District Court Judge Mary Hoak sentenced Brigid Irish to six years in prison with the Colorado Department of Corrections.
Irish had been the sole suspect in the Grand County Building Department's embezzlement and finance scandal, a case that focused on hundreds of thousands of dollars in funds missing from the government office over the course of multiple years.
In December last year Irish pleaded guilty to three felonies and one misdemeanor related to the case as part of a plea agreement. That plea agreement called for Irish to spend 32 years on supervised probation, pay several hundred thousand dollars in restitution and complete 400 hours of useful public service.
If Irish meets specific conditions outlined in her plea agreement her probationary sentence may be reduced to a little as 10 years. The guilty plea also made Irish subject to up to six years in prison at the discretion of the Court with the option of an 18-month county jail sentence also being considered.
“The damage you did Ms. Irish is so much more than taking money and I’m not sure you understand it. It is like throwing a rock in the middle of a pool and watching the waves go out. You have touched everyone in this community with your actions.” District Court Judge Mary Hoak
Before Judge Hoak announced her decision Irish's Public Defender Chris Hamsher, District Attorney Brett Barkey, attorney Alan Hassler on behalf of the Grand County Board of County Commissioners and Irish herself made statements to the Court.
Public Defender Chris Hamsher spoke first for his client, giving an impassioned plea to the Court not to sentence Irish to the full six-years allowed by her guilty plea. Hamsher outlined his belief that the Irish case has garnered heightened attention in the community, including media coverage, and that he hoped the high profile nature of the cause would not impact sentencing.
"Ms. Irish has plead guilty to these crimes," Hamsher said. "But the concept that Ms. Irish is responsible for everything that she didn't plead to or everything that went wrong in County Government is just not supportable and plausible and I don't think she should be sentenced with that concept in mind."
Hamsher also made statements that the case was not entirely Ms. Irish's doing and that others also bear responsibility for the financial controversy in County Government, highlighting a lack of accounting controls or any other process to detect wrongdoing of the nature that was occurring. "Quite frankly, the criminal investigation should have led to other questions," Hamsher stated. He expressed his belief that once Irish was named as a person of interest in the case that most of those questions, "fell by the wayside".
Hamsher also briefly discussed the impacts of the case on the Irish family, including instances of bullying directed at Irish's son, and the loss of prestige in the local community Irish has experienced. He outlined the ongoing difficulties Ms. Irish has faced in securing employment following her arrest, but pointed out she had recently secured a job.
"I think the Court should not be persuaded by the tide of public anger," said Hamsher. "Many people who will go to the Department of Corrections need to be contained from society. Ms. Irish is not in that category."
Hamsher also talked about the reality of the financial benefits Irish experienced as a result of her embezzlement. "I think the air should be clear," Hamsher said. "Ms. Irish wasn't living high on the hog. The reality is much sadder and more pathetic and has to do with the human capacity to rationalize away what we have done." He continued. "This… falls into that category of human frailty of ignoring the wrong doing, not thinking of it as a big deal and not having the reckoning many people need before they admit their wrong doing."
Hamsher stated his belief that if Ms. Irish were sentenced to prison she would likely be paroled out early and would serve only about one-third of six-years.
After Hamsher spoke Irish stood and addressed the Court. Her comments started off with the statement, "I will take full responsibility for everything." She went on to discuss the extreme importance of both her new job and her family to Judge Hoak. "Being able to have my job and being able to take on the responbility of the restution, community service, everything. I want to be able to do it with everything I have." Irish, visible emotional, held back tears as she spoke.
After she finished speaking Judge Hoak made a pointed comment to Irish saying, "you should have been thinking about your job and your children when you started all this. So you know, that will not be a significant concern."
GRAND COUNTY ATTORNEY
Attorney Alan Hassler spoke to the Court as the official representative of the Grand County Board of County Commissioners. "The Board of County Commissioners continues to call for meaningful incarceration," Hassler said. "The Board is expecting the defendant to be sentenced to some prison time. We heard from the defendants counsel about personal suffering. That may be true, but that is not the purpose or the measure of the criminal justice system."
Hassler asserted that the impacts of the case extended beyond a loss of government funds. "There has been a loss of trust," Hassler said. "The impact will continue on after today. We ask the court to impose meaningful incarceration."
After Hassler spoke to Judge Hoak District Attorney Brett Barkey made comments. Barkey quickly pointed out the Grand Jury investigation into the case looked at the possibility other county government employees being criminally liable. "The jury determined no other criminality," Barkey said. "Some bad practices, but not criminality." Barkey requested Judge Hoak impose an 18 month county jail sentence on Irish. "I continue to believe that meaningful punishment occurs in the building right next to us," Barkey said, referencing the Grand County Jail.
Barkey expressed his belief that if Irish was sent to the Colorado Dept. of Corrections she would likely be sent to Community Corrections shortly after in-processing with the state.
Before announcing Irish's sentence Judge Hoak informed those attending the proceedings, which include several members of the Irish family, that outbursts would not be tolerated. "This case is emotional for many people," Judge Hoak said, "If you cannot control yourself please leave."
Judge Hoak started off by acknowledging the preferred sentences of the various parties involved in the case, including the recommendation from probations that Irish be sentenced to 90 days in jail.
"A sentence is in relation to the seriousness of the offense," said Judge Hoak. "Here we have a very serious offense."
Judge Hoak discussed the unique nature of embezzlement cases as they related to public institutions. She highlighted other embezzlement cases before the Court involving private funds where probation was granted. "The Court finds this case to be different," said Hoak. "This case involved taxpayer dollars." Judge Hoak also referenced her initial denial of a plea agreement worked out between the DA's office and the defendant in the fall of last year. "You don't embezzle money from the government and walk away," said Hoak. "That is why the Court rejected the (initial) plea agreement."
"The Court is aghast that this crime went on for 10 years," Hoak said. "This case tore at the fabric of local government. It made our government suspect, as it should. People are suspicious, people are skeptical, and perhaps rightly so. There is a huge loss of trust and Ms. Irish I do hold you responsible for that. People lost their jobs because of Ms. Irish's actions."
As she finished her statements and prepared to deliver Irish's sentence Judge Hoak spoke directly to Irish. "I have heard one statement of responsibility," Hoak said. "I've heard a lot of blaming here today, a lot of passing the buck, a lot of 'they should have caught me'. The damage you did Ms. Irish is so much more than taking money and I'm not sure you understand it. It is like throwing a rock in the middle of a pool and watching the waves go out. You have touched everyone in this community with your actions."
Judge Hoak sentenced Irish to six years in prison with the Colorado Department of Corrections. After a brief tearful parting moment with family members in the courtroom Irish was taken into custody by deputies from the Grand County Sheriff's Office.