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Fayette County tax collector to face trial in alleged theft

| Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Charges of theft and receiving stolen property against a Fayette County tax collector were held for court on Friday during a preliminary hearing.

Joanne Marie Kushnar, 53, of 403 Cook St., Fayette City, was charged by county detectives last month with stealing more than $50,000 owed to the borough of Fayette City and Belle Vernon Area School District. She is charged with two counts of theft and one count of receiving stolen property.

Kushnar did not testify during the brief hearing before Belle Vernon District Judge Jesse J. Cramer.

The suspect, who is free on a recognizance bond, is being represented by Mary Campbell Spegar, an assistant public defender.

Steven G. Kontaxes, detective supervisor with District Attorney Jack Heneks' office, testified for the prosecution.

Kushnar, who served as the elected tax collector in Fayette City for a dozen years, is accused of exploiting flaws she discovered in the control system for tax collections.

County Controller Sean Lally's office noted discrepancies in a 2011 audit of Kushnar's accounts, which prompted the investigation.

Kushnar failed to remit $33,900 of real estate taxes collected for Fayette City from 2008 to 2012, Kontaxes said.

An analysis by Belle Vernon Area's auditor showed a shortage of $18,600 for the July 2011-12 fiscal year, according to Kontaxes.

“We know how much should have been deposited, and it simply was not deposited,” Kontaxes said. “Fayette County was not a victim.”

A 2011 audit determined that deposits into a designated trust account were $3,945 less than the total tax receipts Kushnar received, while disbursements were short by $7,252, according to investigators.

Bank records indicated Kushnar made two withdrawals, while five were made by a second person, between November 2001 and July. That person was not charged, court records show.

Adding the name of another person to the account the tax collector used was not proper protocol, Kontaxes said. “It was not criminal either, as far as we can see,” he said.

Kushnar was interviewed on Nov. 28 at the Perryopolis police station and “she acknowledged that she did take cash from the trust fund bank account unlawfully,” Kontaxes said.

“She told us at the beginning of the interview that the money was accidentally deposited into the trust account. Later, she recanted and said she took the money from the account. She told us she stole the money,” Kontaxes said.

Spegar asked if Kushnar had been informed of her right to remain silent and to retain an attorney. Kontaxes said she was not.

Miranda rights typically are read to a person in police custody.

“She was free to leave. That was clearly explained to her,” before she gave a written statement, he said. “There were no promises; there was no coercion whatsoever.”

“We have a significant amount of evidence to show our case. We proved that money that should have been deposited or given over to Fayette City and Belle Vernon Area School District was not given over,” he said in closing.

Cramer said he found “sufficient evidence” to hold all charges.

Mary Pickels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-5401 or mpickels@tribweb.com

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