BY LEANN DILBECK –
Jan Puckett, age 64 of Mena, was sentenced to 27-months, 1-year probation, and ordered to pay full restitution of $350,601.28 today when she appeared in federal court in Ft. Smith, Ark. after pleading guilty in October 2013 to one-count of Wire Fraud, according to First United Methodist Church Reverend Gary Harrison. The official press release from the Department of Justice has not yet been released.
Puckett remains free until April 8, at which time she will report in for her imprisonment to begin.
The charge stemmed from an incident that occurred on September 20, 2012 when Danny Thrailkill, Chairman of the Church Council for the First United Methodist Church in Mena received a call from the church’s bank concerning a suspicious transaction. Reverend Gary Harrison, the senior pastor, was notified and upon review, it was discovered that additional suspicious transactions had occurred.
It was determined at that time that a single individual, Jan Puckett, who served as the Church Administrative Assistant, was responsible for the questionable transactions. Puckett was immediately placed on administrative leave and subsequently turned in her resignation.
Further investigation revealed that Puckett had been defrauding the church for almost a decade. An independent forensic audit was conducted by Beall Barclay Accounting of Fort Smith, Ark. In a news release from the church in October, the church said, “Their audit revealed that between 2004 and the present, approximately $350,000 in church funds had been misappropriated.” A report was then filed with the Arkansas State Police and the FBI. The release stated that the church has cooperated fully with the investigation as the case progressed to the hands of the U.S. Attorney’s office.
Federal court does not have a charge and is not able to prosecute for “embezzlement.” The penalty for the Wire Fraud that Puckett is charged with stemming from a $3,900 transaction is the same regardless of the amount.
Puckett accepted the conditions as outlined by the judge and filed a bond of $5,000 until her sentencing hearing which is to occur in no less than 45 days. Sentencing will take place after the probation office works with the church and Puckett’s attorney to recommend a sentence for the offense to the judge. The judge is not bound by this recommendation and may raise or lower it according to his discretion.
Assistant Federal Prosecutor Glen Hines then filed an information against Puckett for one-count of Wire Fraud. Puckett waived her rights to a Grand Jury and a formal indictment and pled guilty to the charge in federal court in Fayetteville on Wednesday, October 16, 2013.
Puckett could have faced a maximum penalty of 20 years in federal prison with three years probation and a fine of up to $200,000 on top of the restitution of $350,601.28.
The church has adopted strict oversight procedures regarding how funds are collected and disbursed and will continue to review procedures in order to prevent any future irregularities.
Harrison said he did not want to make any official comment at this time but did say that his church continues to work through this very challenging issue.