The honorable judge James Williamson cited a recent increase in Illinois public officials heading to court in allegations of theft from the communities that entrusted them to office as part of his reasoning in denying former Belknap clerk Nancy J. Hester parole.
Ms. Hester received three years in the Illinois Department of Corrections after pleading guilty to a Class 2 Felony for Theft of more than $25,000.00 from the village she clerked for between 2010 and 2013.
“I think justice was done. I’m glad it wasn’t just probation because that’s just not enough for what she’s done to the village,” Belknap mayor Janet Hester said Tuesday afternoon outside the Johnson County courthouse where she testified earlier against Ms. Hester. “I think we can finally have closure to this.”
Mayor Hester, who is not related to Nancy Hester, testified that the former clerk used her position of trust to wipe out more than $25,000 of the village’s general funds leaving the community with a little more than $11,000 to maintain operations. Hester said it was not until she received a call from the Southern Illinois Light and Power Company informing her the power was about to be shut off did she realize something was wrong. Hester said she pleaded with the company to leave the lights on until she and the village board could figure out what had happened, which led to the discovery of dozens of unpaid bills.
As village clerk, Nancy Hester had authority to sign checks on the behalf of the village and as village clerk, property taxes paid to Belknap arrived in Nancy Hester’s name allowing her to deposit a reported $14,609.49 into her own account. Ms. Hester began writing checks to herself in March of 2011 until December of 2012, which totaled $11,050.00 resulting in the nearly $26,000 of stolen Belknap funds. In court Tuesday, Ms. Hester read aloud a prepared statement pleading for parole and pointing towards a case of depression that stemmed from a divorce that led to her actions. Ms. Hester said that in her attempt to start a new life after her divorce she began going to bars, drinking, making new friends and got hooked on gambling. Breaking down in tears, Ms. Hester said that what started out as a loan she meant to repay got out of control and she asked the people of Belknap and the court to forgive her actions.
Special prosecutor Melissa Presser asked for the maximum sentence of seven years and said in court that Ms. Hester’s actions were not that of a one-time mistake, but were the actions of a thought-out crime that happened over years. Presser said in court that she felt Ms. Hester deserved jail time for her theft of Belknap funds while under public trust as a village official.
“She put her own greedy behavior in front of public safety,” Presser said, noting that the village was nearly left in the dark due to her actions. “It was calculated and deliberate.”
Earlier on the witness stand Mayor Hester described a community that rarely used village funds for any work residents of Belknap could perform on their own.
“We kind of stand alone,” Hester said of the “small” village. “We take care of ourselves and do the work ourselves and this goes back several generations.”
Mayor Hester said that while 26-thousand dollars may not amount to much in larger communities, in Belknap it accounted for 60-percent of the village’s general funds. She and board member Johnny Evans, who testified as well, said it would take anywhere between ten and 20 years to recover the amount stolen. Evans, who has served the Belknap community for the past 40 years, said he was “disappointed; disgusted and aggravated” by Ms. Hester’s actions.
“Lot of hard work [to get to the savings stolen]; hard to take seeing it wasted,” Evans said.
Judge Williamson’s ruling included two years of supervision upon release and Ms. Hester previously agreed to restitution. Ms. Hester received 100 days of credit for time already served and was allowed to return home to “put things in order” after the ruling Tuesday and ordered to report back to the Johnson County Sheriff’s office Friday morning by 9 a.m. Williamson also ordered Ms. Hester back in court within 45 days of her release to develop a payment plan in regards of restitution.
“I felt that the judge’s sentence was appropriate and the state and the board members appear to be pleased with that result,” special prosecutor Presser said.