The Parker County district attorney handed over to a local church a check for $18,061 for embezzled funds that he recovered using asset forfeiture from a former church secretary's bank account.
District Attorney Jeff Swain gave the money to church officials Wednesday after using asset forfeiture law to seize the assets in the bank accounts from the church's former secretary.
Church officials requested not to be named, according to the prosecutor.
Authorities had arrested and later charged Janet Shelley Walker, 63, of Whitney. She was convicted in the case in the 415th District Court in Weatherford on June 14 of theft ($30,000 or more but less than $150,000) from a nonprofit organization and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
"In the investigation, it was revealed that Ms. Walker was in charge of paying the church's bills and had been also paying her own bills, including her mortgage, for quite some time," Swain said in a Friday news release. "During the investigation, she sold the home she was paying for with church funds and we traced those funds to a bank in Hillsboro. I decided to use asset forfeiture law to seize the assets in her bank accounts so we could get the church their money back."
At the time, Swain had not yet been elected and was still a Parker County assistant district attorney.
"I had to call the District Attorney in Hill County and ask if he could swear me in down there as a Special Assistant District Attorney so that I could prosecute the forfeiture case and get the church their money back," Swain said. "As far as I know, that was a first for anyone in our office. We have previously been sworn in to prosecute criminal cases in other counties when their prosecutors have had conflicts, but we haven't ever done it to get restitution for a victim."
Asset forfeiture proceedings are more commonly used to seize assets from drug dealers, Swain said.
But under Texas law, asset forfeiture proceedings can also be used for felony cases involving theft, burglary, robbery, kidnapping, sexual assault, and several other offenses and can result in the seizure of the implements of those crimes and the financial proceeds gained from them.
Swain credited the investigation by his office and the Parker County Sheriff's Office in tracking the funds that Walker stole.
"Between the grand jury subpoenas and search warrants that we issued, we obtained the bank records and business records we needed to prove both our criminal case and the asset forfeiture case," the prosecutor said.
"We were proud to be able to help one of our local churches who was victimized," said Parker County Sheriff Russ Authier in the Friday news release. "It's unfortunate that some people are willing to steal from churches."
Swain said the church fell into a trap that is all too common for nonprofits, which is the belief that no one would steal from such an organization.
"They're certainly right in that stealing from a church should be beyond the pale, even for a thief," Swain said. "Unfortunately, thieves don't feel the same sense of morality that the rest of us have."
The case came to light when a new pastor started working for the small church and saw irregularities in its checking account. As he looked further into it, he found that Walker had written checks from the church to pay a variety of her personal bills for years.
"There are several things that other nonprofits could learn from this case to help them avoid similar problems," Swain said. "Ideally, that would be updated from time to time. At least annually, organizations should have their financial records audited or reviewed by someone other the person who usually handles the finances. A small group may not be able to afford to have a full audit by a CPA, but they can at least get a second set of eyes on the books."
Swain also encouraged nonprofit entities to utilize transparency in their financial practices.
"Running a background check on all employees when they are first hired is essential," he said. "The light of day can be a real deterrent to misconduct."