The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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September 24, 2012

Ex-chamber executive pleads guilty to theft

JOPLIN, Mo. — Kim Lester, the former finance chairwoman for the Boomtown Days Festival who was employed as vice president of the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce, pleaded guilty Monday to stealing money from the festival’s bank account.

Lester, 54, 5848 Eland Road, paid $40,000 in restitution, which is about the amount she told investigators she had taken from the festival accounts before the discrepancy was discovered in December 2010.

Circuit Judge Gayle Crane suspended imposition of a sentence for Lester in Jasper County Circuit Court and ordered her placed on five years of probation on a number of conditions. One is that she participate in the Restorative Justice program that could involve such requirements as attending classes on the impact of crimes, undergoing counseling and doing community service work. The sentencing order specifies that she is to perform 75 hours of community service. She also is not to have access to a checking account unless an employer requires one for direct deposit of a paycheck.

Lester told investigators that she used the money to fund a gambling addiction. She has made no public comment during the course of the investigation or the court proceedings.

Cameo Gerdes, co-chairwoman of the festival’s executive committee, said she is satisfied that the $40,000 repays what was taken from the festival funds.

“We’re really glad to have it over with so we can go forward with planning for the new event,” she said. “We’re relieved to have the entire situation resolved. It’s been a long, grueling, heartbreaking ordeal dealing with this.”

It also has hampered efforts to continue the event, which was postponed last year because of the May 22 tornado and was canceled this year. “We haven’t felt we could recruit sponsors or volunteers with this hanging over our head,” Gerdes said of the effects of having a prominent member of the committee investigated and then charged with a crime and having to wait 21 months for a resolution.

A misappropriation of Boomtown Days funds was first reported to Joplin police on Jan. 4, 2011. Police Chief Lane Roberts referred the case to the FBI for investigation because members of the department had helped plan and provide security for the festival. The FBI returned the case to the police after not finding a federal violation, and it then was handed to the Missouri State Highway Patrol.

According to patrol reports obtained by the Globe in a Sunshine Law request, Lester admitted to the patrol that she withdrew a large amount, somewhere close to $108,000, between January 2007 and December 2010, when a banking officer reported some irregularities in the festival’s bank accounts. Lester told investigators that she had put about $64,000 back into the fund by the time the theft was discovered, though she said she did not do an exact accounting.

The festival organizers continued their practice this year of applying for an annual grant through the Joplin Convention and Visitors Bureau to pay some expenses for next year’s event. The bureau’s board recommended that the festival receive $19,500 to pay for headliner entertainment and some advertising expenses. Members of the City Council asked what safeguards had been put in place to try to prevent future theft.

Gerdes said Monday that the committee immediately brought in Kyle Birkinsha, of Community Bank & Trust, to oversee the festival finances.

“He’s put in place a lot of additional steps that should have been in there that we didn’t realize as far as accounting at the (festival) gates and check requests,” Gerdes said.

With the plea and sentencing on Monday, “We’re so relieved,” Gerdes said. She added that the planning committee may make a fresh start with next year’s festival and make a few changes.

Help sought

VOLUNTEERS who want to help with the planning of Boomtown Days are being recruited. Volunteers may email Cameo Gerdes at cameogerdes@yahoo.com.

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