A 29-year employee of the Broward County Clerk of Courts Office pleaded guilty Monday to using her job to steal more than $36,000.
Cathy Hamilton, 54, of Coconut Creek, was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in state prison after pleading guilty to one count of organized scheme to defraud. Under the terms of her plea agreement, Broward Circuit Judge David Haimes ordered her taken into custody to immediately begin serving her sentence.
Prosecutor Stacey Schulman said Hamilton stole $36,175 from fees paid to file lawsuits. The money was stolen during a six-month period in early 2009, while Hamilton worked in the civil filing section of the clerk's office in the north satellite courthouse in Deerfield Beach.
"She would take cash that was paid by members of the public and pocket that, then use checks filed by other people to make up some of that money and move things around to try to conceal what she was doing," Schulman said. "She would put in some of the cases as no-fee filings."
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The checks were mostly paid on behalf of credit card companies going after debtors, prosecutors said.
Clerk's office employees became suspicious of Hamilton and reported their concerns to the Broward Sheriff's Office. The State Attorney's Office also helped in the investigation.
As part of her plea, Hamilton agreed to pay $71,437 — the $36,175 she admitted to stealing, plus the cost of the investigation. A representative of Clerk of Courts Howard Forman accepted the check from Hamilton in court Monday.
"We felt this was the best resolution, that the citizens of Broward County were compensated and that there's no loss," Schulman said.
Schulman said Hamilton's attorney told her that Hamilton's husband cashed in his retirement benefits to pay her restitution. Investigators did not determine how she used the money, Schulman said.
Hamilton barely spoke in court, answering the judge's questions with a simple "Yes, your honor" or "No, your honor."
Her attorney, Jeremy Kroll, said he could not comment on the details of the case, Hamilton's motivation, or how she used the money.
"Cathy Hamilton is a fundamentally good person who made a terrible mistake. I hope the nature of the responsibility she took this morning by pleading guilty and paying back the money she took underscores that," Kroll said.
Hamilton resigned in June 2009 after she became aware of the investigation. Supervisors at the Clerk of Courts Office intend to try to prevent her from collecting her state pension, Schulman said.
Paula McMahon can be reached at pmcmahon@SunSentinel.com or 954-356-4533.