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Vail enters guilty plea in Cass County

Terri Vail, the Cass Lake-Bena School Board member facing six felony theft charges, entered a guilty plea the day before a jury trial was to commence.

Vail was charged with six felony theft counts with false representation and theft by swindle.

Monday, Vail, 53, entered a guilty plea to felony theft by false representation.

The Cass County court ordered a pre-sentence investigation and scheduled sentencing for 9 a.m. Sept. 2.

Christopher Strandlie, Cass County attorney, said the plea agreement calls for the court to stay a prison sentence.

Strandlie said given Vail's lack of prior criminal history, this is consistent with the Minnesota sentencing guidelines. Vail is expected to be placed on supervised probation with the Minnesota Department of Corrections for three years.

"We anticipate that the court will order 30 days of electronic home monitoring as a sanction, this is also consistent with how similar cases have been sentenced," Strandlie stated.

Vail agreed to pay a minimum restitution of $6,650. Strandlie said his understanding is this is the amount Vail agreed could be proven at trial.

"We will be asking for the entire amount that the school district has provided documentation for," Strandlie said.

Then the final restitution number will be up to the judge just as if the case had gone to trial, Strandlie said. "It is very important to us and the school district that she receive a felony conviction."

The Minnesota Constitution states a person who is entitled to vote, and meets age and residency requirements, is able to hold public office. A person who has been convicted of a felony is unable to vote unless those civil rights are restored. The legal question may be if the conviction occurs when the plea deal is accepted or at sentencing.

As for restitution, any amount in excess of the $6,650 could be subject to a restitution hearing, Strandlie reported. "Ultimately, the exact amount of restitution will be up to the court. Any decision in this case would not be a bar to the school district pursuing any civil claims it might have."

The school district filed an affidavit seeking $23,817.80.

The Cass County Attorney's office plans to have school witnesses testify at the Sept. 2 hearing to show how the school district reached that figure.

Strandlie said it is unusual for a defendant to agree to any amount of restitution ahead of time and still leave the issue open for further argument.

"In resolving the case we worked closely with the school, through its attorney," Strandlie reported. "They were in agreement to resolve the case in this fashion."

There were two priorities, Strandlie said, a felony conviction and helping the school recover as much of the public money as possible.

"We were able to obtain the conviction and not concede anything in terms of potential restitution," Strandlie said. "The outcome could not have been any better had the case gone to trial."

Vail will have the balance of one year and one day in prison hanging over head while she is on probation, Strandlie stated, noting any violations of her probation could result in some or all of that prison time being executed.

Charges stem from investigation

The felony charges stemmed from an investigation following an internal audit from Vail's time as a Cass Lake-Bena School District employee. She continues to be on the Cass Lake-Bena School Board but previously resigned her position as board treasurer. After leaving the Cass Lake-Bena School District as an employee, Vail went to work for the Walker-Hackensack-Akeley School District in February of 2013 and became the payroll coordinator.

According to the criminal complaint, Vail began working for the Cass Lake-Bena School District in 2002 as a high school secretary. In 2005, she became the school district's payroll specialist. She continued to work at the Cass Lake-Bena district until August 2012.

Married in 1988, Vail was divorced in 1999. Her former husband, Michael Vail, worked with the Cass Lake-Bena School District in December of 2007 until 2010.

Before 2008, Vail listed her status as single on her health insurance claims. In 2008 through 2010, she listed herself as married to Michael Vail, the criminal complaint stated. As a married employee, the complaint states Vail collected family insurance coverage through the district.

The criminal complaint states $9,968.80 was paid into her health savings account as a result and $13,849 in premiums were not withheld from her payroll to cover the excess insurance premium for her family plan. And the criminal complaint states because she didn't set up her former husband's insurance plan as a single person, Health Partners/Blue Cross Blue Shield was shorted $10,088 in premiums.

The original counts carried a variety of maximum penalties and fines.

Count one carried a maximum penalty of 10 years and/or $20,000. Count two had a maximum penalty of five years and/or $10,000. Count three on theft with false representation had a maximum penalty of 10 years and/or $20,000. Count four had a maximum penalty of five years and/or $10,000. Count five, theft by swindle, had a maximum penalty of $10 years and/or $20,000. Count six of theft by swindle included a maximum penalty of five years and/or $10,000.

Strandlie said the original charges all encompass basically the same criminal conduct but at different times and statutes. By law, Strandlie reported even if the county got convictions on all of the charges, all the time would be concurrent.

Vail is currently on leave from her Cass Lake-Bena School Board seat. Vail's term ends in 2016.

Cass Lake-Bena School Superintendent Rochelle Johnson said she could not speak for the school board but referenced statutes that will guide the board allowing it to either appoint a new member or host an election in November.

"They were very pleased with the conviction," said Jon Huseby, Bemidji attorney representing the school district. Huseby said the district is still looking at a civil suit and a decision there will likely come down to what Vail is ordered to pay at the September restitution hearing. Huseby said the school district is looking to be reimbursed and will also look at Vail's eligibility for the school board seat.

Messages were left for Vail and her lead attorney on Tuesday, but neither could be reached for comment.

Renee Richardson
Richardson is a Pacelli High School graduate from Austin, Minn., who earned an applied science degree from the University of Minnesota, Waseca, with an emphasis in horse management. She worked extensively in the resort industry. She received an associate’s degree from Central Lakes College, where she was editor of the Westbank Journal student newspaper, as well as a summer intern at the Dispatch. She graduated from St. Cloud State University summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in mass communications and interned at the St. Cloud Times covering business while attending SCSU. She's been with the Brainerd Dispatch since 1996.
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