OLIVET — The city of Tripp's former finance officer was sentenced Monday morning to three years in prison for embezzling more than half a million dollars between 2011 and 2018.
Jennifer Friederich will be parole eligible for the offense after serving 25 percent of her sentence, and Judge Patrick Smith said at sentencing he didn't expect her to be denied parole at that time considering her three convictions were for nonviolent offenses and she has no prior criminal history.
In addition to the three concurrent three-year prison sentences for embezzlement of property received in trust, forgery and destruction of public records, Friederich was ordered to pay $517,000 in restitution to the city and $38,000 in auditor's costs.
"I don't know why I did it," Friederich said before Smith pronounced her sentence. "I didn't know how to stop, and one cover-up led to another. I just blocked it all out, at least that part of my life. I betrayed and broke the trust with my community, and for that I am deeply sorry."
Friederich's sister, Jessica Kuhlman, testified in the Olivet courtroom that her sister is currently the primary caregiver for their parents. Her attorney, Michael Butler, requested that Smith weigh her caretaking responsibilities against the need for punishment and consider house arrest and electronic monitoring, rather than a prison sentence.
"The world would not be worse off if you do, and I don't know that it would be better off with her in prison," Butler said.
Kuhlman said Friederich currently cares for her mother at a level she and other family members would not be able to provide while Friederich is in prison, including taking her for dialysis and doctors' appointments, sorting her medications and ensuring she has meals that comply with a medically restricted diet. Friederich also has custody of her two sons.
"I can't pick up and care for my mom the way that she needs to be cared for," Kuhlman said. "... It's very important to her boys that they have their mom."
Testimony given at sentencing indicated Friederich's restitution has already been paid, in part by her father's farm being borrowed against itself.
Smith granted the defense's request for a stay of execution of sentence, and Friederich will have until Friday to turn herself in to begin her sentence.
Hutchinson County State's Attorney Glenn Roth said the state had agreed to recommend any prison time for the three charges run concurrently, as long as Friederich paid all restitution. Under that agreement, she could have been sentenced to spend up to 10 years in prison.
Smith said he waited to decide how to sentence Friederich until he heard from all parties at the sentencing hearing and indicated he chose the sentence as a balance between the maximum possible prison time and the defense's request for an alternative to prison. He cited letters from people supporting her, her family's willingness to put themselves at financial risk to help her pay restitution and the fact that he didn't believe Friederich was at risk of reoffending or in need of significant rehabilitation as factors in that decision.
Investigation into Friederich began in late 2018, when Roth contacted the South Dakota Attorney General's Office's Division of Criminal Investigation with information found during a routine audit on the city conducted by the South Dakota Department of Legislative Audit.
A criminal complaint charging Friederich with the three offenses to which she later pleaded guilty was filed in September.
Roth said Monday that it's unknown whether Friederich embezzled additional funds between 2003, when she began working for the city, and 2011, which was as far back as the state auditor's office was able to find a paper trail to support the charges.
"The defendant betrayed this community. The city of Tripp has a lot of infrastructure that needs to be repaired," Roth said, arguing that if the money Friederich stole had been used to make those repairs, the city might have seen economic benefits. "... She needs to be punished for her actions. What she's done to the city of Tripp, to the community of Tripp, as well as society itself."
Roth said he had reached out to members of Tripp's city council, but none elected to comment at the hearing. However, a letter signed by unnamed members of the community was mentioned at the hearing, and Smith said he used that letter to account for the public's general sentiments toward Friederich in light of her theft.