A Monroe woman convicted of stealing more than $56,000 in program fees during her time as a county adult diversion coordinator was sentenced to prison Wednesday afternoon in Platte County District Court by Judge Rachel Daugherty.
Traci Nelsen, 44, pleaded no contest and was found guilty in April of theft by unlawful taking over $5,000, a Class IIA felony; as well as filing a false claim, tampering with evidence during a three-year period from 2014-2017 and theft by unlawful taking or disposition, Class IV felonies.
Daugherty sentenced Nelsen to spend the next four-to-six years in York’s Nebraska Correctional Facility for Women for theft by unlawful taking and one-to-three years on her subsequent offenses, all of which are running concurrently (together). Under the Good Time Law of Nebraska, the defendant could be eligible for release in two years.
In addition to the prison sentence, Nelsen is required to pay restitution to Girl Scouts of America in the amount $5,579.9, The Nebraska Coalition for Victims of Crime in the amount of $390.63 and $106,779.56 to Platte County.
The restitution being paid to Girl Scouts of America stems from the theft of thousands of dollars in funding, which ultimately led to the troop disbanding and leaving 19 girls, including at least one of her family members, without a troop home. During her time working as a victims’ assistance coordinator for the Platte County Attorney's Office, Nelsen used her position of trust and power to exploit people at in their most vulnerable state, pocketing money intended to benefit victims, it was said in court.
While overseeing the county’s adult diversion program, formed in 2014 by the Platte County Board of Supervisors as a means of providing a court alternative to eligible low-level adult offenders, Nelsen took diversion fees from her clients for personal use while also garnering funds on several occasions from the Board claiming that extenuating circumstances required her to waive diversion fees. These funds were also subsequently misappropriated.
Prior to sentencing, Special Prosecutor Joseph Smith, who serves as Madison County attorney, argued the defendant should be sentenced to prison and that all charges should run consecutively, or one after another. Illustrating the severity of Nelsen’s misconduct, for more than two hours Smith called witness after witness to the stand to speak of Nelsen’s misconduct, a practice atypical at a standard sentencing.
For a period of time, Smith said, Nelsen stole from nearly every organization or business she encountered. Interestingly enough, he said, had she been truthful she wouldn’t have been hired by Platte County or the Coalition in the first place in the wake of a 2003 misdemeanor theft conviction in Kansas, which later resulted in the disbarment of the former attorney.
“These are different types of offenses, I mean, they happened around the same time but only because she was stealing from everybody,” Smith said, arguing for consecutive sentences to be levied. “It’s possible, for example, to steal from the county without stealing from the Girl Scouts. And it’s possible to steal from the county, without repeatedly forging documents … The county had to pay $30,000 back to the Crime Commission because of all the lying and things she’d done.”
Nelsen’s defense attorney, Tom Hockabout of Norfolk, made the argument for probation even in the wake of her prior conviction. He made no excuses for the defendant, but stated she did do some real quality work and did advocate for her clients, which can’t be completely overlooked in terms of sentencing, he said.
At times, he said, she would go above and beyond serving her clients, going to see them in the middle of the night, or one time, even leaving a Thanksgiving celebration to deal with someone in a crisis situation.
Asking for Intensive Supervised Probation, Hockabout painted a picture of Nelsen as a highly-intelligent woman showing a pattern of making poor life choices. He discussed her motivation for committing the crimes as trying to provide for herself and her three daughters, and that pocketing a few bucks here and there continually grew until it snowballed out of control.
He told Daugherty his client is in counseling and that she’s been working through an assortment of mental health issues stemming from a wide range of emotional, physical and financial abuse placed upon her throughout the years.
Speaking before the court, Nelsen took responsibility for her actions.
“I can’t change what I did. If I had a magic wand with me I would,” Nelsen tearfully said. “But all I can do is change moving forward, and that is what I’m trying to do. I know the court is in a difficult position today. I hurt a lot of people and I’ve done a lot of wrong, and I’m not somebody who just doesn’t get it. I do get it, I do.”
After intently listening to Nelsen speak, Daugherty handed down her sentencing. One of the real shames of the case, excluding the crimes committed, was that so many people were affected negatively through her actions, the judge said.
Nelsen was somebody who people respected and placed their trust in, someone whose actions demanded respect, which was in turn granted. And all trust was breached in the wake of Nelsen’s August 2017 firing, she said.
“This is a sad case because you had such incredible potential,” Daugherty said. “On the outside, you pretended to fight for victims of crimes and to help people maneuver through the criminal justice system while you systemically stole from anyone and everyone.”
While taking the stand, Platte County Attorney Carl Hart said the entire Nelsen case has taken a toll on his office. All the hours spent piecing the case together, all of the trust shattered and more and more people not having faith in public service.
Many of the pieces just don’t fit, he said.
“Since this has happened we have (spent) what I can only characterize as an inordinate amount of effort and energy on the job, and emotionally, trying to clean this thing up,” Hart said. “And, we are still kind of reeling from this whole thing.”
Editors Note: The original online and print version of this story stated that Nelson owes more than $1,000 in restitution to Platte County. The correct amount owed is $106,779.56.
Sam Pimper is news editor for The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at email@example.com.