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Woman pleads guilty to wire fraud; bought guitar, calving pen

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A woman pleaded guilty Tuesday to defrauding a board representing approximately 2,400 irrigators in the Flathead, Mission and Jocko Valleys, of $221,222 in her time as the board's only staff member.

Johanna Estella Clark pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Missoula on Tuesday to one count of wire fraud as part of a plea agreement signed with federal prosecutors in July. As part of that plea agreement, prosecutors agreed to drop 16 additional charges initially filed in the affidavit. 

The wire fraud count to which Clark pleaded guilty carries a possible 20-year prison sentence, a $250,000 fine and three years of supervised release.

Clark began with the Flathead Joint Board of Control in 2013 as the only full-time employee, initially as the executive administrative assistant but later as the executive manager, according to court filings. The roles included authority to make financial decisions on the board's behalf, through the use of multiple bank cards and board members' signature stamps. She also had sole access to the board's accounting program, according to court records.

Federal investigators later found Clark began making personal charges on three of the board's credit cards in August 2014, which carried on until May 2017, when she was terminated from the board, according to court documents. The first count of wire fraud in the indictment filed against her in February 2020 is attributed to her purchase of personal furniture for $1,734, according to prosecutor's filings. Additional purchases included a calving pen for $3,450, a guitar and accessories for $1,150 and tires for a personal vehicle for $2,000.

As investigators caught her case in 2017, Clark attempted to mislead the probe by drafting a memorandum with certain board members' signatures which appeared to authorize the expenses, Assistant U.S. District Attorney Tim Racicot wrote in a July 15 court filing. Investigators determined Clark had likely used the signature stamps to sign the memo, as board members either denied or could not recall authorizing her to use the stamps for personal purchases.

A certified public accountant who completed a report at the request of the Flathead Joint Board of Control found the total loss of the scheme was $221,222.26.

Clark's sentencing hearing has been set for 9 a.m. on Nov. 24 in U.S. District Court in Missoula.

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