A former bookkeeper at Columbia Gorge Discovery Center who was convicted of embezzlement is headed back to jail after an early release that sparked a court discussion about the sheriff’s authority in Wasco County.
On Monday, Circuit Judge Paul Crowley ordered Lori Fiegenbaum, 51, to return to the Northern Oregon Regional Correctional Facilities in The Dalles by 5 p.m. the following day. He said state law allows Sheriff Rick Eiesland to let inmates out of jail when there is overcrowding, but only if the county has an emergency plan in place that specifically grants him that authority. He said there did not appear to be such a plan and the jail did not have an overcrowding situation on May 8, the day that Fiegenbaum was set free.
“The law does not allow the sheriff to rewrite sentences and in this case that’s effectively what happened,” said Crowley.
Fiegenbaum will appear in court at 1 p.m. June 3 to present the judge with reasons why she should not continue to be locked up.
Wasco County District Attorney Eric Nisley strongly disagreed with Eiesland’s action and brought the matter to court. Following the May 20 hearing, he expressed appreciation for the understanding shown by the Discovery Center officials about the situation.
He said Fiegenbaum’s one-year sentence for stealing $94,441.62 from the interpretive site for the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area and Wasco County Historical Museum was crafted with restitution and accountability in mind.
She repaid $10,000 of the missing funds to gain her release from jail pending adjudication of her case and will have to pay off the remaining balance once she has finished serving time.
“We will continue working with the sheriff to use our jail resources in the most effective manner,” said Nisley after the hearing.
Eiesland said last week that Fiegenbaum had been released because she presented no danger to the community and he needed to reduce the number of inmates being held in the jail for budgetary reasons. He said on the day that Fiegenbaum — who has not been convicted of other crimes — was set free, the inmate count for Wasco County had almost reached the 50-bed limit.
He said to go over that limit meant the county would have to pay $96 per day for each additional bed that was needed.
Following Monday’s hearing, the sheriff said an emergency overcrowding plan has not yet been developed for NORCOR, which is funded and operated by four counties. He said the old jail in the sheriff’s office had a federal judgment in place that mandated he make decisions about inmates after two lawsuits were filed about overcrowded conditions.
However, he said that plan could not transfer to the regional jail that opened its doors in 1999.
“This is the first time the issue has been raised at NORCOR, so it is something we need to address,” said Eiesland.
He said the county pays $2.1 million per year for juvenile and adult incarceration services.
To avoid added expenditures, Eiesland said a matrix has been put in place that factors an inmate’s prior criminal history, type of offense and likelihood to re-offend. Every day he reviews the situation at NORCOR and updates a possible early release list with the names of five people who can be freed if necessary.
He said if Wasco County taxpayers want to invest more money in the jail, he will have the extra funding necessary to ensure that every inmate serves out his or her full sentence.
“I am trying to keep us on track financially and still keep the community safe,” he said.
Attorney Rob Raschio of the gorge firm Morris Smith Starns Raschio and Sullivan was appointed Monday by Crowley to represent Fiegenbaum. He objected to his new client being returned to jail until he had consulted with her and reviewed court records.
“I’d like to ask that she remain out of custody until I’ve had an opportunity to discuss with her and the sheriff what is happening,” he said.
Fiegenbaum worked at the center from 2005 until early 2012 when she was let go after anomalies in financial statements led auditors from Friend and Reagan CPAs to further scrutinize the books. Missing funds were then found.