Former Gratis fiscal officer to serve sentence in increments

By Megan Kennedy

March 11, 2014

Serrer Phillips, former fiscal officer for the Village of Gratis, went before Judge David Abruzzo on Tuesday, March 4, asking for a modification of the 90-day sentence she was given for theft in office.

Phillips, accompanied by her attorney, claimed motherhood was her main priority, and that she should be present in her three children’s lives, as they depend on her for “everyday function,” said her husband, Dusty Phillips.

Dusty Phillips, an engineer in Montgomery County is the “breadwinner” of the family, providing the sole income for the Phillips household, and because of this primary income, the family is unable to afford childcare.

When asked why she should avoid jail, Serrer Phillips said, “I have three children. I want to pay my family back. And my husband works full-time and I’m the full-time caregiver for our four-year old daughter, three-year-old daughter, and seven-month-old daughter.”

Eric Marit, Assistant Prosecutor, said of Serrer Phillips, “In the State’s judgement, this defendant needs to set fourth something that’s an extraordinary change of circumstances to make a punishment, that this court found just and adequate just a few months ago, to be somehow different today … In fact, she has done nothing other than what this court has ordered her to do … Now the defendant comes to you with an open check book, asserting that she’s willing to purchase her sentence modification by paying full restitution of the imposed amount. Her desire to immediately pay that restitution should not support modification of her sentence, anymore than a thief returning a stolen car, or a defendant returning stolen jewelery.

“The money she’s repaying is money she stole. She enriched herself at the expense of one of the county’s poorest villages over a period of two and a half years without so much as an apology. She now expects some consideration when she repays something to which she was not entitled to in the first place. The defendant’s attempts to buy her way out of this court’s sentence is insulting,” said Marit.

Marit asked Serrer Phillips whether she had apologized to the Village of Gratis for her crimes, what he claims to be the most basic form of remorse.

“I’m looking for anything that’s different than a couple of months ago or that she’s done to give this court any reason to justify modification of this sentence. And even the most basic thing as an apology would be something,” Marit said.

Serrer Phillips acted as the Gratis Fiscal Officer from 2008 to 2010, in which time, Serrer Phillips was responsible for monitoring payments to the Village. However, cash transactions were never deposited into the Village’s bank account, and instead went into the pockets of Serrer Phillips. Roughly $44,900 found its way into the pockets of Serrer.

Paying restitution and serving court-ordered community service is “nothing more than what this Court has already told [Serrer Phillips] to do, other than speeding up the process,” said Marit.

Serrer Phillips stated, in the past, at times when Serrer was working, a relative was able to watch over the children, however this is no longer the case. Due to an “elderly” mother, the Phillipses claim to have run out of options for caring for their children, and thus Serrer should avoid serving in jail.

Serrer Phillips was sentenced in October to 90 days in jail, however she appealed to the Judge just after three days in incarceration. Phillips claimed her youngest child, now seven-months old, needed to be weened off breastfeeding. Serrer Phillips was also ordered to pay restitution exceeding $30,000, to which she has asked her mother and aunt for financial assistance.

Phillips, who is currently completing 300 hours of community service, pleaded guilty to two counts of theft in office in October. The effects of her crime however, are still felt by the Village of Gratis.

The admitted thief made adjustments while holding office as the Fiscal Officer that led to roughly $62,000 in missing funds. A State Audit of the Village unveiled nearly 2,000 utility account adjustments. Serrer neglected to deposit close to $45,000 in utility payments to the Village’s account.

“Law-abiding citizens should be able to trust that money will not alter justice, and criminals should be made aware that their money is irrelevant in determining punishment. It is this reason that lady justice wears a blindfold, that she may hand out justice without regard of race or religion, weakness or power, poor or rich,” said Marit.

Serrer Phillips was also indicted Monday, March 3, on one count of forgery and one count of falsification. She allegedly forged a doctor’s note to imply she had been diagnosed with breast cancer and required a double mastectomy.

Of the new allegation in the indictment, Judge Abruzzo said, “Whether they’re true or not, it’s an example of this defendant’s desire to stay out of jail, I understand that. I don’t know that I’ve sentenced anybody to jail that wants to be put in jail.”

“I will admit that early on … the court sustained the sentence to give the defendant the opportunity to be with her baby and to breastfeed the baby and ween the baby from breastfeeding … and after that, the new excuse came up. And there have been other attempts,” said Judge Abruzzo.

To Serrer Phillips he said, “You need to understand, ma’am that you are going to serve the 90-day sentence. Attempts that you might make to avoid that are simply going to dig a deeper hole that will make it more difficult for you to climb back,” said Abruzzo.

Judge Abruzzo modified Serrer Phillips’ sentence to serve the remaining 87 days in jail, in intermittent confinement. When first convicted, Serrer served three days in jail before pleading for her release to breastfeed. Serrer Phillips will serve her 87 days in 10-day increments with five days in between.

“In that way, the children will not be without their mother for the entire three months at a time,” said Abruzzo. “You are going to serve the 90 days. I’ve felt that 90 days was a fairly lenient sentence under the circumstances. Efforts that might be made to avoid that are simply going to make matters worse. … you are going to be there as scheduled … We’re not going to accept phone calls, excuses, that’s the way it’s going to be. Efforts to fail to appear of course, simply I will instruct that a warrant be issued, when you are arrested you will serve whatever remaining time on that 90 days is, straight time,” said Abruzzo.

Current Mayor of Gratis, Kathy Lewis, prepared a statement regarding the modified sentence:

“First, our village council would like to thank the Preble County Prosecutor’s office for their excellent work on this case. We are very pleased with the outcome. The Village’s general fund has been struggling financially since this situation occurred several years ago now amd this recovery of our taxpayers’ money will begin to help restore the financial health of our general fund. This situation has been very difficult for our community. We have a new village administration in place now and we believe it is our number one priority to properly manage and safeguard the taxpayers’ money so things like this do not occur in the future. We are happy to put this behind us so we can begin to move the Village forward toward a brighter future.”

As of March 4, Serrer Phillips has paid $30,143.30 in restitution.