SJSO finance chief arrested on embezlement charges

The finance director for the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office in St. Augustine, FL was arrested Tuesday on a warrant accusing her of embezzling $700,000 from the office in recent years.

Raye A. Brutnell, 47, turned herself in on Tuesday to face felony fraud, forgery and grand theft charges linked to what investigators suspect was a long-running embezzlement scheme. Brutnell was fired immediately after her arrest.

Brutnell was making $100,000 at the time of her arrest and was in charge of overseeing $67 million of tax payer money.

WOKV News reports the investigation started on Nov. 14 when two budget and finance employees for the sheriff's office came forward after they uncovered 63 checks totaling $673,422 issued to bogus vendors during a five-year span.

According to an arrest warrant, Brutnell used variations of relatives' names to create bank accounts for phony vendors, forged signatures on checks to vendors and deposited the checks into her own account.

The affidavit says authorities have recovered several documents Brutnell created to track the transactions.

Brutnell says she used the money for car and mortgage payments, her fathers nursing home stay, and daily spending.

Brutnell further stated that she was motivated by "a financial strain on her family and that she did not realize the magnitude of this fraud until she was provided with the dollar amount," according to the warrant.

Brutnell also acknowledged to authorities that she has a spending addiction. Brutnell reported directly to the sheriff. Her duties included overseeing the agency's $67 million budget, payroll, inventory, internal controls, grants and purchasing.

Brutnell started at the sheriff's office as an employee 1991, she has been the finance director since 2013.

According to the warrant, Brutnell said she acted alone. She said her husband, who is a Florida Department of Law Enforcement agent, had nothing to do with the scheme.

Gov. Rick Scott has assigned the case to Brian Haas, the state attorney for Floridas 10th Judicial Circuit.

Brutnell is represented by Hank Coxe, a high-powered Jacksonville defense attorney who has handled several high-profile cases, including the murder trial of Cristian Fernandez.

Brutnell is facing 52 counts each of forging bank checks, uttering a forged bank check, and official misconduct, in addition to a charge each of grand theft, organized scheme to defraud, criminal use of personal identification, scheme to defraud a financial institution, and unlawful use of a two-way communication device. She also faces two counts of criminal use of personal identification information.

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St. Johns County Sheriff David Shoar fired his finance director on Tuesday after she was arrested amid allegations that she stole more than $700,000 from his agency over a five-year period.

Raye A. Brutnell turned herself in at the Flagler County jail on Tuesday morning after a judge signed a warrant in the ongoing investigation, the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office said in a news release.

Brutnell, 47, is facing more than 150 felony charges, the warrant affidavit in the case shows, including single counts each of defrauding a financial institution, grand theft in excess of $100,000, organized scheme to defraud in excess of $50,000 and unlawful use of a two-way communication device. She is also facing various counts of criminal use of personal identification and 52 counts each of forgery of bank checks, uttering a forged check, and official misconduct.

According to the timeline in the affidavit, the investigation began Nov. 14 after two employees in Brutnell’s office approached Shoar and expressed concerns about “suspicious vendor accounts being paid by the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office.”

A brief investigation by Sheriff’s Office staff found that 63 checks had been written over five years to four suspicious vendor accounts totaling more than $670,000, the affidavit says.

By Friday, Shoar had requested the help of investigators with the Polk County Sheriff’s Office who conducted the rest of the investigation.

According to information in the affidavit, the investigators found that the names and information related to the suspect accounts were often slight variations of names or addresses of Brutnell’s close family members and that “several” of the checks written to those accounts had been deposited into Brutnell’s bank account.

During a search of her office, investigators said they found “additional financial documentation” in Brutnell’s desk drawer that showed three checks, totalling $14,000, had been written from the Sheriff’s Office Benevolence Fund to one of the fake vendors and six others, totaling more than $11,000, had been made out to “Cash.” The affidavit says investigators also found documentation related to the benevolence fund that showed checks made payable to “Wyndham Lakes” and “Lexus Financial Services” as wells as Kinecta Federal Credit Union.

According to the affidavit, Brutnell told investigators that some of that money was used to pay for her father’s nursing home as well as her mortgage and car payment.

Investigators are continuing to look into several Microsoft Excel files found on Brutnell’s computer that “contained numerous financial transactions such as daily spending and bills to deposits and fund transfers. “

“The vast majority of the deposits depict notations such as ‘SJSO’ or ‘FDLE’ with corresponding amounts,” the affidavit says. “There are several others deposits which did not have an origin or state “ATM Deposit.”

Investigators said those transactions are being looked at further because they “contain amounts similar to amounts of invoices previously identified.”

In the first, which she gave to Sheriff’s Office Lt. Kevin Cronin, Brutnell is said to have admitted to creating the four vendor accounts and admitted to committing the fraud because of financial strain on her family.

According to the affidavit, she told Cronin that all of the money was deposited into two bank accounts. One account is a joint account that she holds with her husband and the other belongs to her father, but she is an authorized signer on the account. Of the money that was taken, only $9,000 remains, the affidavit says.

She told Cronin that her husband, Mark Brutnell, who works for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, was not aware of her activities.

Mark Brutnell, online FDLE records show, is in charge of the agency’s regional operations center in Tampa Bay.

He was also the supervisor of FDLE Agent Rusty Rodgers who investigated the 2010 shooting death of Michelle O’Connell, a girlfriend of St. Johns County Sheriff’s Deputy Jeremy Banks.

Banks later sued Rodgers unsuccessfully in federal court for civil rights violations during that investigation. O’Connell’s death was officially ruled a suicide, though the case continues to make national news.

In a second interview, which she gave Sunday to the Polk County investigator who wrote the affidavit, Brutnell is said to have admitted to using the Sheriff’s Office Benevolence Fund to make checks out to cash in order to pay her mortgage and her car payment.

She again referenced financial strain on her family and, the affidavit says, “said that she did not realize the magnitude of the fraud until she was provided with a dollar amount by the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office.”

“She further stated stated she did not realize she had a spending addiction until earlier today when she was reviewing her bank records and noticed the amount of money she was spending,” the document says.

Brutnell’s attorney Hank Coxe told The Record on Tuesday that it would be “inappropriate” to comment on the case “other than to say that she has cooperated every which way possible from the beginning.”

The affidavit says that the investigation is “in the beginning stages and additional fraud can be expected to be uncovered pending a forensic audit of the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office financial records during the time the suspect, Raye Brutnell, was employed.”

In the release on Tuesday Shoar praised the two employees who came forward and said authorities are “confident that at the conclusion of this case any monies taken inappropriately will be recovered.”

Brutnell, the release said, has worked for the Sheriff’s Office since 1991. She had been the finance director since January 2013.