UPDATE: This morning, former Fourth and Hope Director Leona Jull has pled to a misdemeanor grand theft charge over the objections of the prosecution, with probation and a determination of $2,411 in restitution.
Commentary – On Tuesday, Judge Stephen Mock, sitting in for Judge David Rosenberg, declared a mistrial in the trial of Leona Jull, charged with grand theft for the alleged use of a homeless shelter’s assets for personal gain. The jury sent out a note on Tuesday afternoon that they could not reach a verdict on the single felony charge.
After being sent back to the jury room for a short time, they were not able to reach a verdict. The Yolo County District Attorney’s office will have to decide whether to retry Ms. Jull, and, in this county, retrial after a first hung jury is almost automatic.
The hung jury does not surprise me in the least. Following Friday morning’s closing arguments a number of people asked what I thought would happen, and my response was invariably that it could go either way. In the end, that’s exactly what happened, with the jury evenly split at 6-6.
The Vanguard Court Watch interns who watched the trial were surprised by my assessment of the case. They had seen mainly the prosecution’s case and it seemed cut and dry. That was how I felt, both reading the media coverage of this case as well as listening to the prosecutor’s closing arguments.
Deputy DA Jennifer McHugh went down a long range of charges that Ms. Jull had made on the company card.
There was a marine battery for a boat that was purchased for $109 – Fourth and Hope, Ms. McHugh argued, did not own a boat. She cited a $97.80 purchase at Tahoe Joe’s in Roseville that the defendant spent on a meal with her boyfriend. Ms. McHugh cited numerous donations that went to Ms. Jull’s house and testimony that stated that Ms. Jull took some of the best donations for herself and the rest went to the homeless.
DDA McHugh argued that Ms. Jull purchased a cell phone and paid $677.67 in cell phone bills for her boyfriend’s daughter’s personal use. There was a $257 Direct TV purchase, and $200 for her front door.
The DDA cited a $106 AAA towing for Ms. Jull’s personal vehicle, and $108 for an inflatable tow raft. Ms. Jull had claimed she was told she could spent $1000 to fix her own car, and $796 for tires.
There was also the sofa that the defendant purchased for $604, which she claimed she reimbursed to Fourth and Hope. Ms. McHugh pointed out that, under the law, it is still embezzlement, theft, even if you return it or pay the money back.
DDA McHugh cited $26.96 for vacation fishing tackle supplies, around $120 for chlorination tablets and $308.95 for a citation while on vacation.
Ms. Jull was accused of stealing more than $32,000 in the end, and Ms. McHugh cited $4000 specifically and in rebuttal conceded down to $2000.
During her own testimony, Ms. Jull would admit on the stand that some purchases were a mistake and her contention was that she had not intentionally spent money on personal items without the intent to reimburse the organization.
So what changed? I think there are three key things that decided this verdict.
First, her attorney in closing comment did a remarkable job of painting the environment in which this occurred. She was not sitting in an office and casually charging things to her credit on the internet.
Instead, the transactions were more nuanced. She was out hustling to get donations. She was at conferences and business trips promoting the organization. There was a flurry of activity. There were company cars and personal car trips.
As her attorney, Robbin Coker, put it, they were playing fast and loose, but that in and of itself is not a crime.
There was a perpetual chase for receipts from everyone, not just Leona Jull. The books were a mess. They had a bookkeeper, a CFO and yearly audits, and yet, these things were not caught until co-worker Chris Gutierrez, deprived of a promotion, turned her in.
Secondly, Ms. Coker managed to explain some of the purchases. Not all. For example, the travel expenses paid for Ms. Jull’s boyfriend were reimbursed to the agency from his own PayPal account. Is that illegal? If they are on a business trip, they book the room on the company card and he pays back his share?
There were dinners cited that could have been on business trips. The car repairs were done when her car broke down collecting for the center and transporting volunteers.
These are not Ms. Jull living the high life, it’s the defendant using company funds to reimburse personal expenses incurred while performing her duties. This was allowable. She may not have documented them properly, but it’s difficult to call it a crime.
Third, however, Ms. Coker could not explain all of the transactions in this way. Ms. McHugh would argue, even if we accepted the defense explanation, that still doesn’t account for $2000 of her documented $4000, and all they have to show was $950.
Ms. Coker tried to explain away a marine battery, suggesting that the battery in Ms. Jull’s boat did not match the one on the receipt. Ms. McHugh countered that Fourth and Hope had no boat.
Ms. Coker never tried to explain away the cell phone bills for Ms. Jull’s boyfriend’s daughter.
And then there is the sofa which Ms. Jull claimed she charged on the company card, but reimbursed. As Ms. McHugh would argue, even temporary deprivation of property is theft.
But where I think Ms. McHugh missed the boat here is the issue of intent, especially on the sofa – was Ms. Jull intending to deprive the company of property or was she merely being careless, sloppy, and irresponsible?
The issue of intent is probably where the jury got hung up.
The grand theft embezzlement charge carries with it the specific intent to take property that was not the defendant’s and deprive its lawful owner of its use. And that may not have been well established here.
The board itself bears some responsibility here. First of all, they are a rotating two-year board with a permanent executive director. From the defense’s standpoint, there was a lot of inexperience going on, particularly on the bookkeeping side of things.
According to the defense, after the accusation was lodged, they did not meet with Ms. Jull to discuss matters, and instead locked her out of the office and asked the authorities to investigate.
Did it have to be handled in this manner? One of the points the defense made is that, yes, Ms. Jull’s department was over budget on its expenditures but they were also half a million over budget on revenue.
It seems like there might have been better ways to handle this than turning it over to the police. Taking away the company card, slowing down the expenditure process, requiring better records, and changing the overall fast and loose culture of the non-profit may have tightened up the money and avoided mistakes – intentional or otherwise.
As it stands, a very good organization is in a world of hurt. And a person who did a tremendous amount for the community remains in the legal system, her life on hold.
As one person told me, there are no winners here. There are only losers. And that is the biggest tragedy of it all.
—David M. Greenwald reporting