Prison term sought for woman behind fraudulent cheque scheme

Crown counsel is seeking a three-year prison sentence for a woman who stole more than $350,000 from her employer while working as an office manager in Prince George.

Between November 2004 and February 2011, Debra Velma Penttila, 63, used her co-signing authority to alter 166 cheques adding up to $362,740 to make them payable to herself, the court heard Friday during a sentencing hearing.

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In outlining the circumstances, Crown prosecutor John Neal said that her employer "prides itself in paying its suppliers on time and, in fact, they used that as a negotiating tactic."

It meant that twice a month, Penttilla had the authority to create a large number of cheques, as many as 60. She would sign them and pass them on to her general manager who would review the cheques and the accompanying remittances then sign them in turn.

"And what happened next is that the offender would alter some of the cheques to make the payee herself," Neal said. "The company books would reflect that the company had been paid when, in fact, they had not."

Cancelled cheques that showed Penttila as the payee would disappear. As well, it was also discovered that cheques from customers to her employer were not reported in the company's books even though they had been deposited into the account.

"The belief there was that the money was being misattributed to other suppliers in order to string out the fraud," Neal said. He said it lasted until year-end accounts had to be reconciled in 2011 and Penttila realized she could no longer cover up the fraud.

"It's my understanding that she had a breakdown, she left the office and the person who was appointed to do her work uncovered what was going on," Neal said.

Charges weren't sworn until February 2017 because of the time it took for the company to determine the extent of the loss and for the RCMP to gather the evidence in a way that was admissible to the court.

"The books, when she left, were in terrible shape," Neal said. "There were documents that had been physically hidden away in the office or documents, such as the canceled cheques, that were missing entirely."

In May 2018, less than a week before the matter was to go to trial, Penttila pleaded guilty to one count of fraud over $5,000.

Defence counsel Jason LeBlond is seeking a conditional sentence order, where the term is served at home, of two years less a day followed by three years probation. Although it would mean Penttila would not to go jail, he noted it would mean she would be serving a term two years longer than the total Neal is seeking.

Penttila admitted she was carrying out the scheme to cover the cost of her gambling addiction. At issue for Crown and defence counsels is whether she was suffering from depression in the lead up to launching the scheme.

The sentencing hearing before Prince George provincial court judge Michael Gray will continue at a later date.

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