A former accountant for the Oklahoma Beef Council was sentenced Thursday to 57 months (5 years, 9 months) in federal prison for using the nonprofit as her "personal cash cow."
Melissa Day Morton, 46, of Edmond, embezzled $2.68 million by forging organization checks between 2009 and 2016, according to Oklahoma City federal prosecutors. She also was ordered Thursday to complete restitution.
Morton claimed the stolen funds were used to finance a children's clothing boutique in Edmond, as well as help out family members.
During the sentencing, representatives from the Oklahoma Beef Council told the judge how Morton was a longtime trusted employee that they never thought could do such a thing.
"I believe she is a con woman," the council's executive director, Heather Buckmaster, told the judge.
She said Morton's actions have caused her personal pain.
Tom Fanning, who was the council's chairman at the time of the offenses, told the judge Morton "stole from 50,000 farmers and ranchers in Oklahoma."
The current chairman, Angie Meyer, told the judge she thought Morton was fueled by "greed, a desire to live beyond her means."
After the sentencing, Meyer released a statement.
"While there is no sentence that would truly rectify the harm these crimes have done to our organization and to our producers, we are satisfied knowing we have done everything in our power to cooperate with federal authorities to seek justice," Meyer said.
Morton chose not to make a statement or address the representatives during the sentencing. Her attorney, Peter L. Scimeca, told the judge she takes full responsibility and "is incredibly sorry."
U.S. District Judge Vicki Miles-LaGrange chose the punishments, saying Morton executed a sophisticated scheme that affected the nonprofit, which supports Oklahoma cattle ranchers.
"She did not embezzle just enough to help her family but extraordinary amounts to support a lavish lifestyle," the judge said.
Morton has already paid $237,874 in restitution, records show. In part, that restitution amount came from the profits from the clothing boutique, Marissa's Room, and the proceeds from selling two homes, records show. Marissa's Room, which opened in 2011, is now closed.
The judge ordered Morton to pay more than $3 million in restitution, with $2.3 million going to the Oklahoma Beef Council. The remaining restitution is to go to the IRS and an insurance company.
On May 10, Morton was charged with bank fraud and making a false federal income tax return. Two weeks later, she pleaded guilty to both counts.
She admitted to embezzling money from the nonprofit, as well as not accounting for the embezzled funds on numerous federal tax returns.
"On 790 separate occasions over seven years, Melissa Day Morton used her longtime employer, the Oklahoma Beef Council, as a personal 'cash cow' to embezzle $2,681,400 for her personal benefit," Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris M. Stephens wrote in a court document. "Her deception and abuse of trust stole not only Oklahoma beef producers' funds supporting the OBC, but also the confidence that many cattlemen had in the beef checkoff program that Congress created in 1985."
The prosecutor also noted that the fraud revelations came out when the Oklahoma Cattlemen's Association was initiating an industry vote to supplement the federal checkoff program with a state program. In November, Oklahoma cattle producers voted not to double the $1 per-head assessment on cattle sales.
"Morton's embezzlement may well have affected that outcome, as some beef producers have lost faith in the Oklahoma Beef Council," the prosecutor wrote.
Morton was employed at the Oklahoma Beef Council from 1995 until July 2016.
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