WATERLOO, Iowa --- A former Black Hawk County Clerk of Court employee was sentenced to prison for stealing more than half a million dollars from people paying off traffic citations and criminal fines.
Saying people need to have trust in how public money is handled, Judge Michael Shubatt of Dubuque gave Tina Marlene Zieser until Friday to surrender to authorities and begin serving up to 10 years behind bars. He also ordered her to pay $537,980 in restitution for the missing money as well as foot the bill for the audit.
Prosecutor Linda Fangman said the audit cost $57,905 and involved checking every criminal case going back several years.
Authorities allege Zieser, 46, pocketed fines when she worked at the Clerk of Court Office between 2004 and 2007 and spent money on gambling, home remodeling and antiques. She covered her tracks by changing fine payments to show community service in the bookkeeping system, officials said.
She entered an Alford plea --- not admitting any guilt but agreeing she would likely be convicted --- to four counts of first-degree theft in the middle of trial in October.
"This is not a one-time mistake. This was hundred and hundreds and hundreds of thefts," said Fangman, who pressed for 20 years in prison. "Each time she could have stopped, and she didn't stop."
She said Zieser continued to steal while watching the state judicial system wrestle with budget cuts that forced employees to take unpaid furloughs and reduced office hours to make ends meet.
For others, the thefts hit closer to home. Two coworkers told the court how they fell under suspicion during the investigation.
One worker said her life was "turned upside down" as officials audited her finances and made her explain every penny she spent.
Another worker said Zieser tried to point the finger at her in an effort to deflect blame, saying the worker had paid off all her student and car loans.
Amid all the evidence, Zieser continued to maintain her innocence during a pre-sentence interview with corrections officials.
Public Defender Aaron Hawbaker said the crime stemmed from his client's gambling problem, a habit that she hasn't acknowledged.
Zieser's tax returns show she gambled $18,000 in 2004 when she was pulling in $31,000 in wages as a clerk, prosecutors said. Even after she left the clerk's office, she reported $22,646 in gaming winnings and losses with a $22,665 job.
Hawbaker asked the court for probation, saying it would better to allow Zieser to receive counseling to address the gambling.
Zieser herself pleaded hardship when given a chance to speak. She said the father of her two children, ages 10 and 11, suffers from a heart condition, and her imprisonment would be an additional burden as he cares for them. She said she also helps her mother, who is going blind.
She also said she wanted to stay out of prison so she could continue to work and pay restitution.