JOHNSON CITY, TN (WJHL) – The director of the Blue Plum Festival pleaded not guilty in Washington County Sessions Court Wednesday to forging nearly $50,000 worth of checks belonging to the organization.
Johnson City police arrested Friends of Olde Downtowne contractor Deanna Hayes, 50, on Tuesday and charged her with forgery over $10,000.
Investigators say board members alerted them to possible criminal activity connected to Hays last week. They say she was responsible for the organization’s finances. Court documents reveal she reportedly began forging checks in September 2015 and continued through the beginning of June. Her arrest warrant reveals she reportedly forged 38 checks over the course of those nine months. Investigators say all but one of those checks were written in her name. The other was written in the name of her child, according to the court document.
“She was pretty much making the checks out and paying herself,” Sgt. Don Shepard said. “Unfortunately, that’s what happens when one person’s in control and there’s really no checks and balances. Luckily for the Friends of Olde Downtowne, some people did notice and there were some checks and balances in place to make sure this didn’t continue.”
According to court documents, although Hays was allowed to write checks, all checks were supposed to be signed by the organization’s president or vice president. Police say Hays admitted to the crime.
“The Blue Plum Organization cannot comment at this time due to ongoing criminal and civil investigations of an independent contractor for the festival,” President Shannon Castillo said in a statement. “We will have a statement at the appropriate time. The Blue Plum Organization remains solvent and will work to continue to bring cultural events into downtown Johnson City.”
According to Friends of Olde Downtown’s most recent tax filing, in 2014 it cost the organization roughly $126,000 to host the Blue Plum Festival.
Hays’ LinkedIn page says she started working for the organization in November 2014. Her attorney says she’s not aware of any formal action taken by the board to terminate her. Hays was released from jail on $10,000 bond this afternoon.
“She is anxious to get back home to her children,” attorney Stephanie Sherwood said earlier in the day. “She’s not going to comment at this time.”
Hays previously worked with another non-profit for two years, helping host Appalachian Clay Camps for children in Jonesborough. Brian Mills, the founder of the organization, says she served as executive director.
“She got the job done with a smile,” he said. “She was incredibly professional with everybody. She was a fabulous worker and quite frankly, the clay camp could not have been basically produced without all her efforts.”
Mills says he considers Hays a friend and never once questioned her character.
“To say shocked would be an understatement,” Mills said of his reaction to Hays’ arrest. “I mean I can honestly say it was like getting hit in the stomach.”
Police say they are not aware of any investigation regarding her work with that non-profit.
Hays is due back in court on her forgery charged linked to Friends of Olde Downtowne on June 29.
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