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Judge suspends sentence for woman who embezzled from HealthNet

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A judge has suspended the prison sentence for a woman who embezzled more than $57,000 from HealthNet, saying her two children would suffer if she were incarcerated.

Meredith Collier, 41, the former accounting director for the company, was sentenced in December by Kanawha Circuit Judge Carrie Webster to one to five years in prison. She was back in court Monday, asking the judge to reconsider. 

Webster said at the time of sentencing she was unaware that Collier's husband, who was also charged in the embezzlement scheme, had a history of domestic violence against Collier and her oldest child, a 19-year-old son who no longer lives with her.

The judge told her, "Other courts may not find it relevant, but I do."

Collier said she lost her job after her employer discovered the embezzlement, her home was foreclosed and her cars repossessed. She said she and her two daughters, aged 10 and 14, were temporarily living in Beckley in a coal camp house with her mother.

That home has one bedroom, and the judge deemed it unsuitable for home confinement. She gave Collier five years of probation instead.

"You've lost everything you gained because of what you did, or despite it," Webster said. "I think prison for you pales in comparison to the disgrace you've brought on yourself and your family.

"I'm not ready to say justice has been served, but I'm not sure justice would be served if I put you in jail and these two little girls suffer," the judge said.

Four people were indicted by a grand jury for that embezzlement from HealthNet. Tina Vance, 41, of Scott Depot, was sentenced to six months and one day at South Central Regional Jail. She formerly worked as a data entry clerk for HealthNet.

The two husbands, Mark Vance and John Collier, were sentenced to probation for using some of that money.

Meredith Collier was to report to jail in January. She apparently did report but was not taken into custody because her attorney had filed the motion for reconsideration of her sentence. 

At her sentencing hearing, HealthNet president Clinton Burley demanded a harsh penalty, saying the lost funds hurt the nonprofit company's ability to provide services.

Webster said Collier's husband's history of abuse -- including a recent third domestic battery indictment in Putnam County -- might have affected her view in December if she had known about it.

"Courts don't always see the human impact," Webster said. "And it weighed on me about these two girls.

"Obviously she made a huge mistake," the judge said, referring to Collier as a "broken woman" whose life was in disarray because of the poor choices she had made.

"But I became concerned that I was going to unduly disrupt a family unit with two young children in the home," she said.

Collier said the two girls could not live with her husband because of the domestic violence and substance abuse problems. The couple is now separated, she said, although she had considered reuniting with some rehabilitation.

Webster said that in addition to probation, Collier must serve 40 hours a year of community service, get counseling and attempt to repay HealthNet.

Her attorney, Brian Escue, said, "It began with her writing one check, and it snowballed into this atrocity. Even though it's bad to take money from someone else, she was trying to provide for her kids."

Collier said, "I really think my kids have suffered enough. And I can't pay back the money from jail. I know I did wrong. But they've paid enough for it."

Collier is currently employed by a Beckley construction company.

Webster told her, "I hope this second chance will translate into a good outcome. I hope you don't let me down. Because this was not a decision I made lightly."Contact writer Cheryl Caswell at cherylc@dailymail.com or 304-348-4832.

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