LaVeta D. Miller was sentenced Tuesday to 25 months in prison, and ordered to pay more than $129,000 in restitution, for stealing money from Central Prairie RC&D. Barton County District Judge Ron Svaty granted a departure from sentencing guidelines that would have placed Miller on probation.
Most of the money stolen from Central Prairie Resource Conservation and Development district between March 1, 2009, and July 21, 2012, was earmarked for the Central Prairie Honor Flight program, which raised donations to give Kansas veterans expense-paid trips to Washington, D.C. World War II veterans received top priority, allowing them to see their memorial and other sights. On March 9, a jury found Miller guilty of two counts of theft by deception, both felonies.
Central Prairie RC&D and Central Prairie Honor Flight have both ceased to exist, a fact victims and Judge Svaty blamed on Miller. She started as a volunteer, eventually became a paid staff member and later director of the program.
“You put Central Prairie RC&D out of business,” Svaty said, adding she also stole from the State of Kansas. (A Department of Corrections print shop was never paid for memory books that were printed to give to veterans after the Honor Flights.) “And finally, you ruined the lives of a lot of patriotic veterans.”
Minutes earlier, Miller had told the court, “I think there is probably not anybody in this room who is more patriotic than I am.”
Svaty recalled those words, saying, “You claim you’re patriotic! You robbed people and you show no remorse — none. You still don’t say that you did it, and the evidence I heard was overwhelming.”
Barton County Attorney Douglas Matthews filed a motion, which was granted, requesting the “upward dispositional departure” from probation. Defense attorney Robert Anderson Sr. recommended probation, which is the norm for someone with no previous felony convictions.
Victims call for prison, restitution
Three people were allowed to speak on behalf of victims. All asked that Miller receive the maximum sentence and be ordered to pay restitution.
Lowell Downey and Mike VanCampen, former volunteers with Central Prairie Honor Flight, spoke first. Downey is now secretary and VanCampen is president of the board of a new agency, Kansas Honor Flight. Also speaking was Mark Collins, of Topeka, former secretary of Kansas Honor Flight. Complaints about Central Prairie’s operation were sent to the national Honor Flight Network by VanCampen and Collins. They formed the new nonprofit organization in 2012 after serving as longtime volunteers for Central Prairie Honor Flights.
Downey said Miller’s actions “violated the trust of caring Kansans, (and) kept or delayed about 157 veterans from making the trip for which funds had already been donated.”
VanCampen described fundraisers that were conducted by people wanting to show their gratitude to veterans – from a 4-H group in Garden City to a lemonade stand in McPherson. In addition to veterans who were kept from making the trip, several volunteers had paid their way to serve on an Honor Flight, but didn’t get to go.
Kansas Honor Flight obtained applications from the defunct Central Prairie group, some dating to 2008. “The veterans had been waiting a long time for this long awaited call,” he said. Sometimes, the call comes too late, “when we hear he’s passed away or can no longer make the trip. That’s what happened to us 88 times,” VanCampen said.
“Surely (Miller) must lower her head in shame when she sees a veteran or an American flag,” he said.
Collins described some of the other projects that Central Prairie RC&D conducted for its eight-county service area, before it was “forced to close its doors because of LaVeta Miller’s theft.”
Collins said he was also a personal victim, because Miller tried to blame Central Prairie’s problems on others. She claimed he’d hacked her computer and deleted files.
Also, Collins said, Miller inflated the number of Kansas’ World War II veterans on the Honor Flight waiting list to 900 – a number that never got smaller. Actually, there were only 115 on the list, and enough money donated to fly 150 of them to D.C.
“My dad was one of those,” Collins said, showing a photo of his deceased father, who applied for an Honor Flight in 2009, but never got to go.
A plea for mercy
When allowed to speak Tuesday, Miller maintained her innocence, as well as her patriotism.
“I did my job,” she said.
“I ... I am at a loss here because I feel I have been thrown to the wolves,” she said. “I think there is probably not anybody in this room who is more patriotic than I am. I just ask for mercy and a chance to have my life back.”
Svaty imposed the maximum sentence under state guidelines, but departed from “presumptive probation.” Miller will serve 13 months on the first count, followed by 12 months on the second count. Those will be followed by one 12-month term of post-release supervision. (If she violates conditions, she could serve another 12 months in prison.)
Miller was charged with “theft by deception” under state guidelines in effect in 2009. The second charge of “theft by deception” invokes a different statute, because Kansas criminal codes were revised in 2011. Svaty said if the criminal code had not changed during the time she was committing her crimes, Miller’s sentence could have been up to 35 months.
She will receive credit for any days she was in jail before she was free on bond. Miller can also receive good-time credit, reducing her stay in prison by up to 20 percent, which is five months.
The restitution will be paid to the Clerk of the District Court of Barton County, since Central Prairie RC&D no longer exists. Recipients of the money, such as the DOC print shop, will be determined as the money comes in. Svaty noted that Miller, who is in her 50s, could conceivably pay the money owed during the remainder of her life after prison.