The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Crime & Courts

May 11, 2012

Sentencing report disputed in ex-shop operator’s case

A federal prosecutor newly assigned to Joplin businesswoman Peggy Newton’s embezzlement case believes she should serve about five to six years in prison.

She and her attorney think it should be no more than four to 10 months.

Newton, 39, was scheduled to be sentenced Thursday in U.S. District Court in Springfield on the single count of wire fraud to which she pleaded guilty Oct. 14 in a deal with the U.S. attorney’s office for the Western District of Missouri.

U.S. District Judge Richard Dorr postponed Newton’s sentencing until June 18 at the request of Steven Mohlenreich, the assistant federal prosecutor who took over the case following the recent resignation of Robin McKee, another assistant U.S. attorney.

Mohlenreich’s motion for a continuance filed on Monday cited substantial differences between what the government and the defense think the extent of the fraud was that Newton perpetrated on her partner, Diane Pine, in their home decor business, Evergreen & Amber, and what her sentencing range should be.

The government maintains that Newton stole $300,000 from Pine through unauthorized credit card charges and forged checks. In his motion, Mohlenreich put the defense’s estimate of the loss at about $30,000.

The motion states that a pre-sentence investigation report recommends a sentencing range of 46 to 57 months. Mohlenreich wrote that he believes the range should be enhanced another two levels “for obstruction of justice.” He suggested a range of 57 to 71 months.

The prosecutor informed the judge in the motion that he would need additional time to prepare for the sentencing hearing, which he said “will be akin to a mini-trial” since the government will need to prove its assertions with respect to the extent of the fraud.

Newton’s attorney, John LeWright, filed objections to the pre-sentence investigation report with the court in February, denying assertions that his client signed Pine’s name on checks without her knowledge or permission, that she altered carbon copies of checks, or that she opened any accounts in Pine’s name without her authority.

Pine met Newton after moving to Joplin from Atlanta in 2005. They started Evergreen & Amber and operated out of Pine’s home before moving to 424 S. Main St. in Joplin. The store closed in 2009, with Pine first taking her complaint to Joplin police in April 2009.

Pine told the Globe last year that they started the business with $120,000 in charges on two of her credit cards, and that she later took out a mortgage on her home for $140,000 to pay off the credit card balances and make it possible for the business to establish credit lines with local banks.

The original 25-count indictment of Newton accused her of writing almost 400 checks on the store’s bank accounts between September 2006 and June 2009, to make purchases and pay for services for her own benefit and to obtain money for personal use.

The indictment further alleged that on about 500 other occasions, she used Pine’s personal credit cards and the credit cards of the store to make purchases and obtain money for personal use.

Pine maintains that she lost her house, her savings and her credit because of Newton’s actions. Newton filed for bankruptcy in federal court prior to being indicted.

Newton pleaded guilty to a single count of wire fraud. That count pertained to a charge on a Visa card belonging to Pine for $1,926.70 to cover the purchase of Newton family portraits from Lagow Portrait Designs Inc.

The defense’s objections to the pre-sentence investigation report allege that Pine’s credit-card loss was no more than $17,611.29 and that Newton repaid $2,575 of that to the business.

The defense acknowledged an additional $24,855.29 of purchases of clothing and accessories made by Newton that were worn by her at the business. But they maintain the two partners agreed that their personal appearance was important to the business and that they would use the credit cards to pay for clothing toward that end.

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