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Cass Lake-Bena School Board member enters guilty plea on theft charge

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

By Renee Richardson

Forum News Service

WALKER, Minn. -- A Cass Lake-Bena School Board member and former school district employee accused of swindling the district entered a guilty plea the day before a jury trial was to begin. 

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Terri Vail, 53, was charged with six felony theft counts. She was accused of misrepresenting her marital status on insurance enrollment forms, resulting in a financial benefit. On Monday, Vail pleaded guilty in Cass County Court to one count of felony theft by false representation.

The court ordered a presentence investigation and scheduled sentencing for Sept. 2.

Cass County Attorney Christopher Strandlie said the plea agreement calls for the court to stay a prison sentence. Strandlie said given Vail's lack of criminal history, this is consistent with the Minnesota sentencing guidelines. Vail is expected to be placed on supervised probation with the Minnesota Department of Corrections for three years.

"We anticipate that the court will order 30 days of electronic home monitoring as a sanction. This is also consistent with how similar cases have been sentenced," Strandlie stated.

Vail agreed to pay a minimum restitution of $6,650.

Strandlie said his understanding is this is the amount Vail agreed could be proven at trial.

"We will be asking for the entire amount that the school district has provided documentation for," Strandlie said.

The school district filed an affidavit seeking $23,817.80.

The Cass County Attorney's Office plans to have school witnesses testify at the Sept. 2 hearing to show how the school district reached that figure.

Vail will have the balance of one year and one day in prison hanging over head while she is on probation, Strandlie said, noting any violations of her probation could result in some or all of that prison time being executed.

The felony charges stemmed from an investigation following an internal audit from Vail's time as a Cass Lake-Bena School District employee. She continues to be on the Cass Lake-Bena School Board but previously resigned her position as board treasurer. After leaving the Cass Lake-Bena School District as an employee, Vail went to work for the Walker-Hackensack-Akeley School District in February 2013 and became the payroll coordinator.

According to the criminal complaint, Vail began working for the Cass Lake-Bena district in 2002 as a high school secretary. In 2005, she became the school district's payroll specialist. She continued to work at the Cass Lake-Bena district until August 2012.

Married in 1988, Vail was divorced in 1999. Her former husband, Michael Vail, worked with the Cass Lake-Bena district from December 2007 until 2010.

Before 2008, Vail listed her status as single on her health insurance claims. From 2008 through 2010, she listed herself as married to Michael Vail, the criminal complaint stated. As a married employee, the complaint says Vail collected family insurance coverage through the district.

The complaint says $9,968.80 was paid into her health savings account as a result and $13,849 in premiums were not withheld from her payroll to cover the excess insurance premium for her family plan. And the criminal complaint states that because she didn't set up her former husband's insurance plan as a single person, Health Partners/Blue Cross Blue Shield was shorted $10,088 in premiums.

Vail is on leave from her Cass Lake-Bena School Board seat. Her term ends in 2016.

Cass Lake-Bena School Superintendent Rochelle Johnson said she could not speak for the school board but referenced statutes that will guide the board allowing it to either appoint a new member or hold an election in November.

Jon Huseby, a Bemidji attorney representing the school district, said the district is still looking at a civil suit and a decision will likely come down to what Vail is ordered to pay at the September restitution hearing.

Messages left Tuesday for Vail and her lead attorney were not returned.

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