The former executive assistant of Downtown Jackson Partners President Ben Allen (pictured) now faces five felonies. He is appealing his own conviction.
Photo by Imani Khayyam.
JACKSON The former Downtown Jackson Partners secretary who blew the proverbial whistle on her boss, Ben Allen, may end up guilty of more felonies than her former employer for "intentionally" methodically forging checks on DJP's account, if new indictments lead to convictions.
Twenty-seven months after Hinds County District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith refused to prosecute Linda Brune because she was a witness in his own case against Allen, a Madison County grand jury indicted Brune on five counts of uttering forgery, all felonies, on Aug. 10, 2017. She ended up not testifying against Allen, however, in his trial earlier this year—perhaps because DJP had, by then, filed a civil suit against her for forging more than three dozen checks written on its account.
A jury returned a guilty verdict on one of the 10 counts against Allen, for including his wife on $1,737.38 in DJP cell-phone bills, which he is appealing. Allen's attorney presented evidence that he had reimbursed the organization for her use of the organization's phone.
Allen told the judge in his sentencing remarks that the cell payments had been made long before. "The documents at DJP, substantiated by BKD accountants, show that my wife’s cell phone bill had been paid over a year prior to the indictment," he said. "I had actually overpaid her cell phone bill by $80.93. The reimbursement was done in the same way as the prior year's reimbursement, and it was approved by DJP. This information was readily available in an office file simply labeled 'Susie’s Cell Phone.'
To make her case against Allen, Brune had used Jerry Mitchell of The Clarion-Ledger to make her accusations public, providing the reporter boxes of files she had taken from DJP to prove that her boss had mishandled nonprofit funds there. Mitchell published a story on July 26, 2014, laying out Brune's case against Allen based on the material. She also registered as a whistleblower with the state auditor's office.
Allen wrote in a statement to Jackson police that he had discovered Brune's alleged forged-check trail after learning that she had removed the boxes of files from the DJP office to give to Mitchell. As a result, DJP submitted canceled checks and other documents to Hinds authorities to prove that she had falsified 38 checks on DJP's accounts for a total of $40,439.43. Allen's statement requested that "a bench warrant be issued for the arrest of Linda Brune on the charge of Embezzlement."
Brune had written several checks payable to her between the years of 2009 through 2014 in which she forged my signature on the endorsement line without my permission or knowledge,” Allen wrote in that letter. When the original checks returned from the bank, he wrote, "she would white out her name on the payable to line and replace it with the name of a venders (sic) in which the Downtown Jackson Partners does business with."
Allen’s statement ended by requesting that "a bench warrant be issued for the arrest of Linda Brune on the charge of Embezzlement."
The Hinds DA's office, however, refused to prosecute Brune's case, scribbling on a "Recommendation for No-Bill" dated May 29, 2015, that DJP's case against her was "retaliation for whistle-blowing." DJP filed a civil suit in Madison County court in 2014 against Brune over the checks. On May 23, 2016, DA Smith wrote the Downtown Jackson Partners attorney, saying Brune would not be available for depositions in the civil suit against her because "she is a victim in the criminal case of State of Mississippi versus Benjamin Wade Allen."
Brune filed a response to the civil suit, calling it a "frivolous" lawsuit.
An archive of reporting on controversies surrounding Hinds County district attorneys, present and past.
Even though Brune did not testify against Allen, the judge allowed documents about her alleged forgery into the trial as part of a larger evidence package, but The Clarion-Ledger did not report DJP's allegations against the whistleblower at the time. The accused forger declined to speak to the Jackson Free Press during Allen's trial, but posted a comment on the JFP website saying the charges against her were "bogus."
In Brune's response to the civil complaint, she argues that Allen had knowledge of the checks and that she was wrongfully terminated. "This entire scenario was manifested when Mr. Allen learned that I had cooperated with the State Auditors Office in their investigation of him and his misuse of Djp funds," she wrote to the court.
Madison County Circuit Court documents show that she claimed that she is indigent and requested a public defender in the criminal case against her. She posted $10,000 bail.
Brune regularly attended the State of Mississippi's trial against DA Smith late last year. In a related incident in an intertwined series of events and cases, DA Smith indicted two employees of the state auditor's office for what he called "hindering" of his Ben Allen investigation that Brune had put into motion. State Auditor Stacey Pickering's office later issued a statement calling Smith's indictment of his employees "unprecedented, unfounded and beyond explanation," even as the auditor's office had investigated Brune's allegations as a whistleblower.
In the separate but tangentially related case of the district attorney's alleged hindering of Christopher Butler's investigation, Smith also issued subpoenas on state officials, who were investigating him in that case, that time from the Mississippi attorney general's office. Smith's first trial ended in a mistrial early this year, and a jury in his second trial on the same charges recently acquitted him. Smith faces an October trial in Rankin County on separate charges of robbery, domestic violence and stalking charges.
See jfp.ms/brune to comment and to view PDF of all related court documents including the allegedly forced checks.
CORRECTION: The print edition of the above story stated that Brune had attended Ben Allen's trial, but should have said that she regularly attended DA Smith's trial late last year. The story is edited to reflect that correction. In addition, DJP reached out to the JFP today to say that Allen had paid back his wife's cell-phone bill well in advance of the trial.
This longer version now includes more information from the trial on that issue.