Shepherd embezzlement trial begins
Late Tuesday morning, jurors heard opening arguments in the case of a former Shepherd University administrator accused of spending nearly $86,000 of public funds for personal use.
A jury of seven men and five women-with one alternate of each gender-was sat just after 11 a.m. in Jefferson County Circuit Court to hear the case of 50-year-old Elizabeth “Libby” Shanton, of Martinsburg. Shanton is currently facing 53 counts of misusing a state-issued purchasing card and a sole count of fraudulent schemes.
Jefferson County Assistant Prosecutor Brandi Sims kicked off opening statements by telling jurors that what “may seem like a complex case, because of the many documents, statutes, policies and regulations” surrounding purchasing cards- “p-cards” for short-was actually “pretty simple.”
“Ms. Shanton was issued a state-issued p-card, which is used for buying papers and pens without filling out an order every time,” Sims said. “She was issued this card for her work in organizing students events and activities, but ended up using it to buy thousands of dollars, more than $85,000 worth of personal items, in 13 months.”
Sometimes Shanton would “blend in” the personal items into items she would buy for door prizes, while at other times she took advantage of a lack of oversight after two people left the procurement department-which oversees purchases-and did not turn in a receipt, according to Sims.
University administrators were alerted to the alleged spending spree, which lasted from late 2010 to early 2012, after noticing Shanton had allegedly charged more than $5,000 at a conference in New York City in 2012, according to Sims.
“They saw she had taken a limo from JFK Airport to the Marriott in Manhattan, then after checking out, checked back in and went on a shopping spree that cost thousands of dollars,” Sims said. “This went up the ladder to the state auditor’s office, who investigated, then went to the Commission of Special Investigations, which looks at misuse of state moneys.”
Sims added, “From there, investigators looked at thousands of receipts and bank statements, seized items and interviewed staff at Shepherd. The defense will make this a case about Shepherd, but I’m hear to tell you, Shepherd caught the fraud and reported it. This trial is about Ms. Shanton.”
Shanton’s attorney, Shawn McDermott, took the podium, where he characterized his client as a “scapegoat” for “systemic purchasing practices” at Shepherd University. He said all of Shanton’s purchases-even the Coach handbags-were for door prizes as a part of her job as Shepherd’s “event planner.”
“My client, Libby Shanton, because that’s what students called her, was just trying to make a great life for great students,” he said. “She had the both the implicit and explicit permission of her supervisors to make these purchases.”
When McDermott began expounding upon the jurors’ views of reasonable doubt, Sims objected, resulting in bench conference with Judge David H. Sanders. Upon resuming the podium, McDermott used an analogy likening reasonable doubt to placing a cat inside a box with a mouse, then opening the box to find the cat and a “mouse-sized hole” in the box.
“One of the biggest holes in the state’s case is that none of the items Libby bought were ever found in her personal possession,” McDermott said. “But you’re not going to hear the testimony of student workers who worked underneath Libby, all you’re going to hear from the state is just what auditors found odd in her purchasing, auditors who never spoke with those students.”
While McDermott said that “on the surface the purchases look strange,” Shanton’s position as Director of Commuter Affairs, Assistant Director of the Student Center and Director of Greek Affairs made it necessary to purchase high ticket items for event prizes in raffles, contests and giveaways.
McDermott said that “every event,” whether they were professional days, domestic violence awareness events or diversity events, had prizes and it was a competition between Shanton and another “event planner” to get the “best prizes” in order to get more students to turn out.
“At the time, there was no set policy at Shepherd regarding how much the door prizes could cost, and the layers of bureaucracy overseeing purchasing was a disaster, to say the least,” McDermott said. “There were others at Shepherd who were making similar purchases, if not more, and not turning in as many receipts.”
Toward the end of McDermott’s opening statements, Sims objected again, bringing about another bench conference. Following the conference, McDermott wrapped up, claiming that the case was “based on some auditors from Charleston coming up here, knowing nothing about Shepherd and what it’s about.”
The case will resume at 9 a.m today. Attorneys say it should last into next week.