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Smelser pleads guilty to embezzlement

September 26, 2001|By DARREN SIMON, Staff Writer

Brawley resident Teri Smelser pleaded guilty Tuesday to embezzling funds from the Cattle Call Rodeo Committee.

The former real estate broker who was involved with several local civic groups could face up to two years in state prison. She will return to court Nov. 11 for sentencing.

Karla Davis, the deputy district attorney assigned to the case, said she will argue for a two-year sentence — the maximum the court would allow as part of Tuesday's agreement and pleading.

Smelser's attorney, Richard Strickland of El Centro, has not returned telephone calls from this newspaper.

The District Attorney's Office agreed to dismiss all counts against Smelser except for her guilty plea to the count of embezzlement tied to the rodeo committee.


Smelser also had been accused of embezzling funds from All Saints Episcopal Church in Brawley, the Cattleman's Gallery committee and a man for whom she served as a bookkeeper named Francisco Arce. She also faced one count of elder financial abuse.

Davis said while those counts were dropped, the DA's Office retained what is known as a "Harvey waiver" that will allow the court to consider the facts of all counts, including those dismissed.

Smelser reportedly embezzled about $400,000, but portions of those funds have been repaid.

According to Davis, All Saints Episcopal Church and the Cattleman's Gallery have been repaid all funds embezzled.

The gallery committee settled with Smelser prior to her pleading after she made a payment to the gallery account.

There has been no payment to Arce, who was a groundskeeper at Cattle Call Arena in Brawley. Smelser was a bookkeeper for Arce, managing his checking account. Davis alleged about $2,500 was embezzled from Arce.

Davis said she is unsure if Arce will seek restitution of those funds.

On the elder abuse case, Smelser has agreed to pay $55,000 to the victim and do so before her sentencing.

One major point of contention is whether Smelser has repaid the Cattle Call Rodeo Committee.

Davis said according to a forensic analyst with the state Department of Justice, Smelser has returned to the committee's account any funds she may have taken out plus put more into the account.

Carson Kalin, treasurer of the rodeo committee, alleged Tuesday that Smelser was involved in co-mingling funds between accounts so the committee has no way of knowing whether she has repaid the money.

Regardless, he alleged Smelser owes at least $80,000 to the rodeo committee from a period dating prior to the three years of documents that were probed as part of the investigation.

That investigation started in April 2000 after it was learned a check written on the rodeo committee's account for advertising work bounced.

The investigation resulted in Smelser's arrest on Oct. 20 of last year by state Department of Justice agents.

Smelser had been a member of the rodeo committee and had served as its treasurer for at least 10 years, according to Kalin.

For that reason, he said, it is hard to say how long she was involved in embezzling funds from the committee.

Davis said, "We have evidence it was going on longer than the three-year period we investigated."

In her effort to repay the embezzled funds, Smelser has sold her home and her father, Albert H. Smith, has sold a Brawley building. Davis added Smelser's father has helped her pay back the funds.

While Smelser has repaid some money, Davis said that does not excuse the fact a crime was committed and for that reason she will argue for a prison sentence on Nov. 11.

Davis said the DA's Office was never willing to accept an agreement that would only involve a probationary punishment.

Kalin said the rodeo committee is continuing to feel the effects of the embezzlement. He said last year the committee had to take out a $50,000 loan to stage the rodeo. He said this year the committee again has had to take out a $50,000 loan.

In what may be a related matter, Kalin said the committee is finding the cost of staging the rodeo is less than the committee has paid in past years. He said that raises some questions regarding why the event was more costly.

Larry Allen, a rodeo committee member, said he is "not out for a pound of flesh" in the Smelser case.

"When you make mistakes you have to pay for them, and that is what is happening now," he said.

He credited the DA's Office for the way it has handled the case.

Staff Writer Darren Simon can be reached at 337-4082.

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