COLUMBUS — An inquiry that began with questions about Platte County adult diversion program financial records quickly raised some red flags for local and state authorities that led to the dismissal of the program’s coordinator last summer.

Former coordinator Traci Nelsen, 44, is accused of failing to deposit more than $56,000 in program fees to the county treasurer during a three-year period from 2014-17. She is charged with theft by unlawful taking over $5,000, theft by deception over $5,000 and tampering with evidence.

During an annual audit last summer, Nebraska State Auditor’s Office officials had concerns about Nelsen’s process for collecting program service fees from individuals whose cases were referred to the adult pretrial diversion program.

Nelsen tried to explain the missing funds, said Deann Haefnner, assistant deputy state auditor, during testimony Wednesday at a district court hearing on a defense motion to bar the former coordinator’s incriminating statements made to authorities during interviews prior to her arrest.

Haefnner said Nelsen reported 98 percent of the fees were “waived” by her office.

“That’s why she said a lot of money wasn’t being collected,” Haefnner said.

The auditor said she and Jennifer Cromwell, an investigator with the auditor’s office, contacted program clients who said they paid their program fees.

Pamela Bourne, an attorney with the Nebraska Intergovernmental Risk Management Association (NIRMA) who specializes in employment and personnel issues, interviewed Nelsen the same day. She was accompanied by Platte County Attorney Carl Hart, who was Nelsen's boss.

Bourne testified in court Wednesday that Nelsen initially denied being responsible for the missing funds, but later reversed her story.

“Nelsen said, 'Yeah, I took the money,' then asked, ‘Do I need a lawyer?'" Bourne said. “I took (the statement) as a confession and told her I couldn’t respond to her question about a lawyer.”

During cross-examination, defense attorney Tom Hockabout linked Hart’s presence at the interview with the defense’s contention that Nelsen’s statements were the “result of unlawful coercion, without benefit of counsel” and violated her constitutional rights.

“I was not there for law enforcement issues,” Bourne testified. “I was there to conduct an investigation of an employee’s actions. Any personnel decision was up to the employer."

Hockabout countered that Hart is the county’s chief law enforcement officer and his presence during the interview had criminal law implications for the defendant.

Nelsen's motion asking Judge Rachel Daugherty to bar her statements at trial was put on hold Wednesday because the judge had other commitments.

Daugherty said she would reconvene the hearing with Special Prosecutor Joseph Smith and Hockabout via conference call Friday before ruling on the defense motion.

Nelsen's trial, previously scheduled to get underway Monday, has been continued, but a new trial date has not yet been set.

The Monroe woman was hired as the Platte County victims assistance coordinator in 2009 by former County Attorney Sandra Allen and named coordinator of the newly created adult diversion program in April 2014.

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Reporter

Jim Osborn is a news reporter at The Columbus Telegram.

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