Former Town Administrator Pleads Guilty To Embezzlement

Former Town Administrator Pleads Guilty To Embezzlement
Jeff Fleetwood, who retired from his position as Berlin's town administrator this spring, pleaded guilty to embezzlement in district court Tuesday. File photo

SNOW HILL– Berlin’s former town administrator apologized in Worcester County District Court this week after pleading guilty to embezzlement.

Jeff Fleetwood, the Berlin town administrator who retired this spring and now holds a similar position in Delmar, pleaded guilty to embezzlement Tuesday. He paid full restitution to the town in the amount of $17,520 and Judge Gerald Purnell sentenced him to six months in jail with all but one month, which Fleetwood will serve in home detention, suspended. He was also ordered to complete 40 hours of community service.

“I’m truly sorry for being in this courtroom,” Fleetwood said.

Fleetwood, who served as Berlin’s town administrator from 2019 to the spring of 2022, was charged last month with six counts of forgery of private documents, theft $1,500 to under $25,000 and theft scheme $1,500 to under $25,000. The felony charges related to discrepancies in Fleetwood’s leave balances, which he was paid for when he left Berlin.

“Investigators were advised that during a recent audit, discrepancies were discovered involving Fleetwood’s leave balances,” Assistant State’s Attorney Erin Smith said. “Fleetwood had a special clause in his contract that allowed him to be paid out for accrued sick leave. Investigators were advised that an additional 240 hours of sick leave and an additional 80 hours of vacation had been added to Fleetwood’s leave and earning statement.”

When he retired in May, Fleetwood was paid $98,942.96. Investigators determined $17,520 of that was fraudulently obtained as it was tied to manual leave adjustments. There were six dates between Oct. 2021 and April 2022 when Fleetwood added hours of vacation and sick leave to his leave bank, according to the statement of charges.

Kelsey Jensen, the town’s human resources director, and Mayor Zack Tyndall read victim impact statements during Tuesday’s hearing.

“I want to start by saying that I hate that I have been put in this position,” Jensen said. “I do not want to be here and I am uncomfortable. I never imagined in my time working for the Town of Berlin that I would be doing this.”

Jensen described how she’d viewed Fleetwood—who worked in various capacities for the town for a decade—as a mentor as she worked her way up through various town positions during the past six and a half years. She said his attitude had changed, however, when he became town administrator.

“After Jeff became the town administrator I noticed a difference in his personality,” she said. “He did not seem like his heart was in it and it was clear that he did not care for the mayor. The mayor was always the topic of conversation, which was taking its toll on me and the other staff members.”

She added that when Fleetwood put in his notice, he’d wanted to stay until June but was told to leave immediately.

Jensen said she was contacted by the town’s auditors in September regarding the amount of sick time paid out. Upon looking into the sick leave figures, she realized that Fleetwood has more than 317 hours of accrued leave when the maximum allowed for any employee is 95 hours.

“My gut knew what I was seeing was true, but I was hoping it wasn’t,” she said.

Jensen said there were six dates on which Fleetwood’s leave time had been adjusted. She reviewed the process involved in manually adjusting leave time and noted that it took eight steps from start to finish.

“For those individuals who think he was set up or didn’t do this, I was the only other one who could do this and I did not,” she said.

Jensen said she blamed herself for not noticing prior to the audit that leave figures were not in line with what they should have been. She added that she’d had to carry the weight of knowing about the issue long before it was made public.

“While I was not personally victimized by Jeff, I feel disappointed and taken advantage of by someone I learned from, looked up to, and considered a friend,” she said. “It also impacted internal relationships among staff that may never fully recover. It validated some citizens’ existing distrust of government, which makes our jobs that much harder. We are already under scrutiny for every decision we make.”

Tyndall said he was speaking on behalf of the town’s residents and employees. He said Fleetwood had taken an oath office when he was appointed town administrator.

“Mr. Fleetwood not only violated the oath of office he violated the trust of the town’s 5,026 residents and 272 businesses…,” he said. “It will take the Town of Berlin years to rebuild the public trust.”

Tyndall said he supported the state’s request that Fleetwood serve jail time. Steve Rakow, Fleetwood’s attorney, highlighted his client’s lack of criminal history. He said Fleetwood, 64, was married with four grown children and had spent 20 years in the U.S. Army and worked in several local businesses before joining the Town of Berlin. He added that Fleetwood now worked for the Town of Delmar. He handed Smith a check for the $17,520 and asked that Purnell consider probation before judgement.

“This is his first offense,” Rakow said. “I don’t think he’s ever had a speeding ticket.”

He added that several individuals had come to court to show their support for Fleetwood. The group that raised their hands in a show of support included several citizens as well as former mayor Gee Williams, former Councilman Troy Purnell and sitting Councilmen Dean Burrell and Jay Knerr.

“Sometimes people make a mistake,” Rakow said.

Fleetwood apologized and said he was sorry to the citizens as well as Jensen and Tyndall.

“This is the first time in my life I’ve been in a courtroom,” he said.

He asked the judge to consider the fact that he’d made full repayment of the $17,520 and that he wanted to be able to continue to contribute to society.

Purnell subsequently sentenced Fleetwood to six months in the local detention center with all but 30 days, which will be home detention, suspended. He said Fleetwood also needed to do 40 hours of community service by March 1 and would be placed on probation for one year.

While the court did not grant Rakow’s request for probation before judgment, Purnell indicated he might consider a motion at a later date. When asked for a statement after the hearing, Rakow said Fleetwood wanted to move forward with his life and put this behind him.

“For 64 years, Jeff has never had so much as a traffic citation,” Rakow said.  “He’s a retired army officer and served in several other positions with May Company, Perdue, and Piedmont Airlines before working for Berlin. His position with the Town of Delmar will be decided later this week. He’s honored to have the support of many local Berlin residents, present and past council members, and a former mayor. Those who know Jeff know he is a good man, but the evidence in the case led him to make the plea that he did. We respect the court’s sentence and we’re pleased that ASA Smith was agreeable to allowing Jeff to plead to embezzlement to avoid what would have likely been a fairly long and involved trial with the possibility of a felony on his record had the court found the state had met its burden of proof.”

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

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Charlene Sharpe has been with The Dispatch since 2014. A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School and the University of Richmond, she spent seven years with the Delmarva Media Group before joining the team at The Dispatch.