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Bemidij woman charged with church embezzlement

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news Bemidji, 56619
Bemidji Pioneer
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Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

A 45-year-old rural Bemidji woman has been charged in Beltrami County District Court with felony theft by swindle of more than $107,000 from First Presbyterian Church in Bemidji.

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Her next court appearance is scheduled for Tuesday, Aug. 10.

According to the criminal complaint:

Eileen Mary Branch worked for First Presbyterian Church for more than three years. Among her duties were processing and payment of bills owed by the church through the church's checking account at First National Bank Bemidji.

In late 2008, Branch allegedly began embezzling church funds. Canceled checks were no longer returned to the church with the monthly checking account statement issued by the bank. Branch would write out checks to herself or to pay her own bills. She would enter the name of a trades person, supplier or government entity in the church's check register as the payee for the check, which she had made out to herself. When the monthly bank statement was sent to the church, Branch would alter it to correspond to the payees she had falsely noted on the check register.

For example, Branch wrote checks to federal and state revenue authorities as employment taxes on salaries paid to church employees, but would then make those checks payable to herself.

Branch's alleged embezzlement continued throughout 2009 and into 2010. Her scheme was detected when legitimate creditors of the church, such as plumbing contractors, began complaining to church officers that they hadn't been paid for the work they performed months earlier for the church.

A church officer went to First National Bank to examine microfilm copies of the church's checks. Checks noted as payable to the church's legitimate creditors had been made out to Branch and cashed by her.

Bemidji Police investigators located Branch who, according to the complaint, said she had stolen the money to pay off personal and family debts.

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Pioneer staff reports
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