After guilty plea, court clerk begins restitution installments

01/23/2015 8:00 AM |
Ms. Stulsky leaving court last year. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch, file)

Ms. Stulsky leaving court last year. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch, file)

As the former Southold Town senior court clerk accused of stealing more than $230,000 in bail funds over the course of an unknown number of years gets ready to serve a six-month jail sentence, the town is preparing to pay back those who posted bail but never saw the money again. 

Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell said he expects the town to receive its first restitution payment — a $50,000 check, according to the district attorney’s office — this week. From there, the town’s court will draft a plan to return bail money to defendants who had appeared in Judge Rudolph Bruer’s court.

The former clerk, Christine Stulsky of New Suffolk, pleaded guilty to grand larceny charges last Wednesday.

The money can’t come soon enough for some people, like one North Fork man who said losing his $5,000 bail ultimately cost him his home after he couldn’t pay rent.

“I ended up getting an eviction,” said the man, who asked to remain anonymous. “I moved out January 1st. I have no job. I have no house. I have nothing.”

The man said he was arrested roughly 18 months ago for a non-violent offense that he later pleaded down to a violation. He said he borrowed $5,000 from a friend to make bail and ultimately repaid him, but never got the cash back from the court.

It’s been about eight months since his case was settled, the man said. He claims the court has been less than clear about what his next step is.

“They need to take care of us,” he said. “And when I go [to the court], there’s no answers.”

Members of town government and the town’s justice court disputed that characterization, stating that repaying those whose bail money was stolen is “definitely a priority.”

“We are working on this,” said Justice Court director Leanne Reilly, who began working for the town about a week before Ms. Stulsky pleaded guilty.

Ms. Reilly said that as long as she’s been there, court employees have been very clear to those seeking their stolen bail about what happened. The court plans to return the funds on a first-come, first-serve basis, she said Tuesday.

“We’re doing the best we can,” Mr. Russell said, noting that an insurance claim made by the town is still pending.

Ms. Stulsky had worked for the town for more than 30 years when she was arrested last March.

Last week, she admitted stealing $231,791 as part of her plea deal and will be sentenced in March.

She had faced up to 15 years in prison but avoided the maximum sentence through the plea, which also requires she pay back the money in full.

Suffolk County District Attorney spokesperson Robert Clifford said the terms of her deal include a second $50,000 payment that must be made by September. The remainder of the stolen funds will be returned over the five years Ms. Stulsky is on probation following her release from jail.

Southold Town Attorney Martin Finnegan said the restitution money will be placed in a “segregated bail account.” The town will issue refunds to the victims from that account, he added.

Both Ms. Reilly and town Justice William Price said the court has begun using more checks and balances to make sure money is adequately tracked. It now uses a program that tracks changes to finances in the court system — including who made those changes.

“Nothing in it can be changed,” Judge Price said. “You have to give a reason to change anything.”

The court has also altered how it handles bails paid by defendants at the local police station, giving the system extra layers of oversight, Ms. Reilly said.

Ms. Reilly’s job itself, which was proposed in the wake of the scandal, was created to enhance control over what happens in the court.

Both Ms. Reilly and Judge Price said they’re confused as to why outside auditors never mentioned the court’s previous outdated policy for handling bail. At the time of Ms. Stulsky’s arrest, Mr. Russell said auditors had identified “record-keeping” issues in the court that went unaddressed, but Mr. Price said Tuesday that he only saw summaries of the audits, which made no mention of any discrepancies in the bail fund despite Ms. Stulsky’s continued theft.

Mr. Price said he couldn’t speak to how Judge Bruer handles his court; the court kept separate bail accounts and only money from Judge Bruer’s account was stolen. Judge Bruer didn’t return calls seeking comment.

Mr. Price said the town couldn’t simply use other people’s money to pay off the stolen funds. The bails, he said, are held “in trust” of the specific person who posted them. They can’t be transferred.

Town officials wouldn’t disclose how many people have reported their bail money missing, nor would they reveal how much each person lost.

For the man who has been waiting eight months to get his $5,000 back, the money means “everything,” he said.

“It’s the difference between flat-out broke and getting back on my feet,” he said.

Since he pleaded guilty to the violation and served 48 hours of community service, the man — who said he worked as a salesman out of his home — has had to move into a small apartment.

He expected the town to use funds that are on hand to replenish the stolen bail account and repay victims, he said, claiming it would be “easy.”

“It’s quite insignificant compared to the millions and millions that the town has,” he said. “[Stuff] happens in life, but they’re making their problem my problem.”

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