TYNDALL -- After using city funds to pay for everything from concert tickets to cigarettes, the former city finance officer for Springfield was sentenced Tuesday to 60 days in jail for embezzling nearly $40,000 from the community.
In addition to the 60-day sentence, Ashlea Pruss, 36, will have another 90 days of jail time as a potential sentence, which can be waived with good behavior.
Circuit Court Judge Cheryle Gering ordered Pruss to pay $38,189.93 in restitution, along with additional witness and court costs and a fine of $2,500, during a sentencing hearing Tuesday at the Bon Homme County Courthouse in Tyndall.
Pruss pleaded guilty to one count of grand theft, a Class 4 felony, on Oct. 15. Court documents indicated that Pruss embezzled the funds between Oct. 1, 2016, and Nov. 19, 2018, in her role as the Springfield finance officer and as a member of the Springfield Ambulance Department.
In addition to the jail time, she has 10 years suspended in the South Dakota Women's Prison, and Pruss will have 10 years of probation, which can be shortened to five years with good behavior.
In issuing her sentence, Pruss’ actions were described as brazen by Gering, who described the scale of the theft as snowballing over the span of the two years by using a city-issued debit card.
“These were intentional acts each and every time you used that debit card, and there were hundreds of transactions, knowing full well it was not your money and that the city was ignorant to your actions,” Gering said.
Those purchases included using the debit card to pay for items such as Garth Brooks concert tickets, gifts for friends, cigarettes, alcohol, groceries, clothes, and dog treats.
Pruss, who now lists Spearfish as her residence but is a native of Springfield, will have one year to pay the fines and restitution. In a tearful statement to the court, Pruss said she is regretful every time she looks into the mirror, and she said she was in over her head with her actions.
“It’s been the hardest year of my life, and that is my fault,” Pruss said. “I want to be able to prove to my community that I am truly sorry for what I’ve done and that I’m willing to do what it takes to earn their trust back.”
In court, Bon Homme County State’s Attorney Lisa Rothschadl detailed moments of how Pruss tried to conceal her activity. When a local accounting firm wanted to set up an appointment to discuss the city’s records in an audit, Pruss told the firm that her husband had been involved in a bad car crash in Minnesota and had suffered serious injuries and trauma. Rothschadl said there was no record of a crash.
When there was a $150 charge to a Norfolk, Nebraska clothing store, Pruss defended it to investigators by saying that her clothes had blood on them due to transporting a patient there, and she needed new clothes. Rothschadl said a review of Springfield’s ambulance records showed they didn’t bring a patient to Norfolk on that day. Gering also said records showed she deleted her own water utility account so she wouldn’t have to pay the bill.
“Did she think we couldn’t check into these things? That we couldn’t find any records?” Rothschadl asked, adding later: “That takes a lot of nerve, that takes a lot of guts.”
Documents produced in the investigation also indicated that Pruss used the debit card to book a hotel room when she interviewed for a new job on the western side of the state, and she purchased furnishings for a new residence, as well. Gering said it was an indication Pruss would continue using the funds up until the last minute.
“I think her actions speak louder than her words,” said Rothschadl, who said she was seeking assurance that this wouldn’t happen again to another government agency or business. She asked for jail time and a minimum of six years probation.
Pruss’ attorney, Richard Rylance, said he had seen a lot of remorse from his client in the last year. He said Pruss has made arrangements to borrow funds from her family and friends to repay the city.
“To suggest she’s not remorseful is disingenuous and unfair,” he said. “She knows this has affected all of the other important people in her life.”
Gering noted there is a concern that Pruss’ actions might have been larger than can be quantified, such as a lack of clarity that funds from community fundraisers made it to the right people. She said she hopes the city of Springfield has also learned from the incident to have additional safeguards in place to keep this from happening again.
“For some of those people, it will never be made right … and you will have to live with the consequences of that,” Gering told Pruss, speaking about her relationship with the community.