SKOWHEGAN — Jury selection is scheduled to begin Wednesday in the trial of Claudia Viles, the former Anson tax collector who is charged with stealing more than $438,000 from the town.

Viles, 66, resigned Sept. 10 after she was charged with 13 counts related to the missing money, including one felony theft charge and misdemeanors including five counts of failure to make or file state income tax returns, six counts of failure to file or pay state income taxes and tampering with public records.

She has pleaded not guilty to all of the charges, which stem from an investigation by the Office of the Maine Attorney General into the disappearance of $438,712 in excise tax money from the Anson Town Office. Viles was the elected tax collector in the town for 42 years before her resignation last fall.

Reached at her home Friday, Viles declined to comment on the case.

Jury selection in Somerset County Superior Court is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. Wednesday. The trial is scheduled to begin the following Monday, June 20, in the same court, with Justice Robert E. Mullen presiding.

The state has submitted a list of 15 witnesses who may be called during the trial, including several current and former Town Office employees, Anson Board of Selectman Chairman Arnold Luce and an accountant from the firm Purdy Powers and Co., which conducted the town’s audit.

Assistant Attorney General Leanne Robbin, who will prosecute the case, also has submitted questions for prospective jurors to help uncover potential biases or other reasons that would warrant their dismissal. Potential jurors will be asked whether they ever have registered or renewed a registration for a motor vehicle in Anson and whether they ever have had dealings with Maine Revenue Services.

Robbin would not comment Friday when asked whether Anson residents will be excluded from the jury pool.

No pretrial motions are being filed in the case.

Viles pleaded not guilty to each of the 13 charges against her at an arraignment in September. She is being represented by Augusta attorney Walter McKee, who couldn’t be reached for comment Friday.

The charge of theft is a class B felony, the highest theft charge possible in the state, according to Robbin. Anything more than $10,000 is a class B theft, and while the state does not differentiate between greater sums of money in bringing up charges, the amount of money can factor into sentencing.

“Class B is the highest one, so whether you have a Bernie Madoff-size theft or somebody who stole $10,000 and one cent, it’s the same class of theft,” Robbin said. “The only thing that would distinguish it ultimately is at the time of sentencing, if there is a conviction, the court would decide whether that amount is a factor to be used to determine length of sentence.” Madoff is a former financial advisor serving 150 years in prison for defrauding an estimated 20,000 investors out of as much as $64 billion.

Class B theft is punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $20,000.

The other charges against Viles are class D misdemeanors punishable by up to one year in jail and a $2,000 fine.

Robbin would not say specifically whether the state also is seeking restitution of the money in Viles’ case, but she said that “certainly in every financial crimes case I’ve prosecuted, I’ve always asked that restitution be paid.”

The town of Anson had been investigating missing money since late 2014, when former Administrative Assistant Triss Smith calculated a $78,645 discrepancy between the amount of money that the town had collected and the amount deposited. An auditor’s report released in March 2015 at Town Meeting confirmed the money shortfall and prompted an investigation by Maine State Police and the attorney general’s office.

Excise tax is an annual tax paid on motor vehicle registrations that is used as revenue supporting the municipal budget in the community in which it is collected.

Reviews of town records by Purdy Powers have revealed the disappearance of a total of $438,712 in excise tax money over the last five years.

The case is believed to be the biggest of alleged theft by a town employee in recent memory.

In August, attorney general’s spokesman Tim Feely wouldn’t comment on the case; but when asked how common this type of embezzlement case was, the most recent one he could recall was two decades ago, when Doris Reed, the Chelsea town clerk, was convicted of stealing about $250,000.

In 1997, Lisa Paine, a former Madison town clerk, pleaded guilty to embezzling $255,000 from the town from 1990 to 1996.

In a 2006 Morning Sentinel story exploring theft by town employees, Michael Starn, of the Maine Municipal Association, said the excise tax collecting part of town government is particularly vulnerable.

“In the past one of the real culprits was excise tax,” he said, “because people would come in and pay cash, and there was that ability to take that cash and not account for it.”

Starn said the most difficult embezzlement to detect is the type done in little amounts over a long period of time.

In Viles’ case, authorities said, she had the opportunity to take money when residents paid excise tax on newly registered vehicles. After transferring the registration fees to the state, Viles could keep a portion of the money paid and provide the town treasurer with what was left over.

She had a history of holding on to checks and cashing them quarterly, a practice that Smith, the administrative assistant, said was frustrating for many residents and prompted them to pay in cash, according to an affidavit filed in April 2015 by state police Trooper Christopher Crawford. In March of that year, a review of how Viles processes excise tax payments revealed that she was not recording the right numbers even though she appeared to understand how to do the job correctly, the document claimed.

Town officials have not accused Viles of taking the missing money, but the town did file a civil lawsuit against her in August saying she purposely omitted amounts she collected in excise tax from the town’s accounting system, knowingly recorded inaccurate amounts she collected in excise tax and reprinted calculator tapes with altered figures to make it appear that the amount of money collected matched what was being deposited.

Viles remained in her job as tax collector, an elective position, for weeks even after the town’s allegations were filed. She resigned in September after the Maine Municipal Association, which insures the town, said it would not provide bonding for any money she handles. It is illegal to collect taxes without being bonded.

In November, Anson voters overwhelmingly approved changing the tax collector job to an appointive position, instead of an elective one, and approved a recall ordinance. The change to the tax collector job went into effect in March, while the recall ordinance took effect immediately.

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm


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