Former L.M. finance director pleads guilty

Published 10:08 am Wednesday, February 8, 2012

By Rae Yost, Mason City Globe Gazette

FOREST CITY, Iowa — Christine Mathahs pleaded guilty Tuesday in Winnebago County District Court to stealing more than $200,000 from the Lake Mills School District while she was the school’s business manager from 2005 to 2010.

“I wrote checks to pay my personal credit cards from the school district fund,” Mathahs said in court.

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Mathahs pleaded guilty to a felony charge of theft in the first degree and a charge of felonious misconduct. She had originally also been charged with fraudulent use of a credit card, money laundering, falsifying public documents and tampering with public records.

Under a plea agreement between Mathahs, her attorney, Mark Newman of Forest City, and Winnebago County Attorney Adam Sauer, Mathahs pleaded guilty to the charges and will pay $37,101.19 in restitution.

Newman has asked the court for deferred judgment on any sentence for Mathahs and for probation.

Sauer seeks 10 years in prison on the theft charge and four years on the misconduct charge to be served concurrently.

A sentencing hearing was set for 9:30 a.m. March 20. The court ordered a pre-sentence investigation.

While Mathahs pleaded guilty to stealing more than $200,000, the school district’s insurance has covered about $200,000 of the loss, Sauer said.

The $37,101.19 is what is still owed to the school, Sauer said.

District Court Judge Bryan McKinley noted other North Iowa cases where defendants have been charged and found guilty of stealing from public institutions.

“I am trying to understand how a person systematically takes money from a public institution and they know it’s wrong from the beginning,” McKinley said. “They recognize it is wrong (and yet steal). What rationale can you give me today as to why you did this?”

Mathahs said she knew what she did was wrong but “because I feel my inhibitions were very, very low, I made bad decisions.”

Although Mathahs said she was not using it as an excuse, she believes medications she was using for anxiety, depression and other illnesses were an influence during the time she was stealing from the school.

“I feel I was betrayed by my brain …,” she said. “It’s absolutely unacceptable.”

Mathahs said she wrote checks from the school district accounts “about two or three times” a year to make payments on her personal credit card debt.

“What was the average size of those checks?,” McKinley asked Mathahs.

“About $11,000,” Mathahs said.

Mathahs said she did not take vacations or trips with the stolen money but instead bought groceries, clothing and similar items people might use a credit card for.

“Two-hundred and twelve thousand dollars is a substantial amount,” McKinley said. “How much of that is finance charges?”

“About half,” Mathahs said.

“So that’s about $100,000 for food and clothing …,” McKinley said.

Mathahs said she was able to hide the theft from other school officials and the School Board by using the school’s computer software and altering the purchases so they appeared to be checks for school supplies and equipment.

The thefts went undetected, in part, because the unspent balance in the Lake Mills School District had grown while she was the business manager, Mathahs said.

“So the surplus allowed the amount to be undetected,” McKinley said.

Mathahs said she quit her job as business manager after she tried to use the school’s credit card to pay for a conference in Florida and it wasn’t accepted.