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Linda Hald, former 30-year Community Justice Department employee, pleads to one count, with arrest forthcoming

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - Linda Hald (far right) appears in Columbia County Circuit Court Wednesday, March 7 alongside her attorney, Michael Staropoli (center) and prosecuting attorney John Tseng.Linda K. Hald, a former Columbia County Community Justice Department employee, pleaded guilty Wednesday to first-degree aggravated theft in an embezzlement case involving the Justice Department.

Linda Hald, a former Columbia County Community Justice Department employee, pleaded guilty Wednesday to first-degree aggravated theft in an embezzlement case involving the state Justice Department.

Hald was indicted in 2016 on 29 felony and misdemeanor counts ranging from theft to attempted theft, aggravated theft, tampering with public records, and official misconduct after it was discovered shortly after her retirement in June 2015 she likely stole money and destroyed records to cover it up.

Investigators believe Hald likely took money, including cash, from offenders who made payments to the Community Justice Department for fees associated with adult supervision of people on parole or probation, a county official noted in 2016. Hald kept an estimated $585,575 in fees paid, often destroying register tapes or entering false sums in accounting records to hide the missing funds, an indictment indicates.

The indictment against Hald stated the former public employee stole funds of $10,000 or more, but upon reading back the indictment's language Wednesday, Columbia Circuit Judge Ted Grove asked Hald to acknowledge she "embezzled something far in excess of $10,000."

Hald appeared alongside her attorney, Michael Staropoli, in court Wednesday for a settlement hearing that began more than two and a half hours after its scheduled 3 p.m. start time.

Hald, 70, retired from the county on June 30, 2015, as the Community Justice Department's office manager. She had worked for the county for 30 years.

In May 2017, Grove granted a motion to dismiss 14 counts against Hald, including tampering with public records and official misconduct, due to an error in the indictment, which failed to mention which county the alleged crimes occurred in.

In a plea deal Wednesday, the former county employee admitted to one count of aggravated theft, with a stipulation that she will pay $20,000 in restitution and a $75,000 compensatory fine, to account for a portion of the stolen funds costs incurred from investigations and financial audits.

Additionally, Hald could face 30 months in custody, with two years of probation afterward.

"We are expecting some money to be paid to the county up front," John Tseng, a district attorney tapped to prosecute the case, said Wednesday, but noted additional reimbursement will likely be requested from Hald at the time of her sentencing.

"Those funds are in trust and will be paid at the time of sentencing," Staropoli said.

"You understand that you are giving up important rights here today, including the right to a jury trial?" Grove asked the defendant.

"Yes," Hald responded.

A tentative date of July 10 has been set for Hald's sentencing. She is expected to be taken into custody at the sentencing hearing.

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