The former finance director for the city of Durango has signed a plea agreement admitting to embezzling more than $710,000 over 11 years from town coffers.
According to the plea agreement, which was filed Thursday in 6th Judicial District Court, Julie Brown, 51, plans to plead guilty to two felonies: embezzlement of public property, and theft of $100,000 or more but less than $1 million.
She is scheduled to enter a formal guilty plea Nov. 13.
District Judge William Herringer has wide discretion in determining a punishment. She faces anything from probation to 12 years in prison, according to terms of the plea agreement.
Brown worked in city finances for more than 17 years, including in 2003 as an accountant supervisor before becoming finance director in 2007. She resigned in October 2019 amid allegations of fraud, which led to a monthslong investigation by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation.
In exchange for her guilty pleas, prosecutors will dismiss several charges, including tax evasion, forgery and identity theft.
In addition to facing up to 12 years behind bars, Brown must pay at least $712,297 to the city of Durango.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys are expected to make recommendations about sentencing next week.
If Herringer rejects the plea agreement, Brown can withdraw her guilty plea and proceed to trial.
“The fact that it’s got a significant range of possible outcomes is going to give us a chance to do justice,” said District Attorney Christian Champagne. “Both sides have a different position on what that may be. We think it’s a fair and just outcome.”
Last fall, Assistant City Manager Amber Blake, then interim city manager, confronted Brown about deposits to a company called Animas Professionals.
Brown admitted to stealing about $500,000 from the city and said: “I f***** up, I got into a hole and was trying to get out,” according to court records.
According to an arrest affidavit, Brown approved checks from the city of Durango to Animas Professionals in her role as finance director. From there, she deposited the checks into her personal bank account.
Court records show Animas Professionals dissolved in 2010, and was owned by Bill Brown, Julie Brown’s father-in-law.
In total, Brown stole at least $710,449 and used a credit card issued to her by the city of Durango for $1,849 in fraudulent charges, according to the plea agreement.
Those charges included the $464 purchase of a round-trip flight to Denver and a $1,384 purchase at Disney Resort, according to the arrest affidavit.
Brown’s case led to internal and communitywide questions about the security of city finances, and how fraud on that scale could have gone unchecked for 11 years.
Since October 2019, the city has revamped its internal processes to double-check financial records, launched an external audit specifically designed to catch fraud and updated its policies to match best practices.
City Manager José Madrigal announced this week that the city will launch a new online platform for the public to review city finances in 2021.
“This is something that’s on the forefront,” Madrigal said. “When (City Council) hired me, they tasked me to shore up and be transparent with our finances, so that our public can follow them.”