Melanie Cholewinski, a former Clark County welfare worker, was ordered Wednesday to spend two to five years in prison for the theft of more than $91,000 in taxpayer money meant for the poor.
"To say that you betrayed the public trust is an understatement," District Judge Jessie Walsh told Cholewinski in handing down the sentence.
Cholewinski, 36, who had come to court chewing gum and carrying a large black leather purse, was handcuffed and taken into custody.
Walsh sentenced Cholewinski's husband, Michael Wayne Brown, 36, who has a prior gross misdemeanor conviction, to three to 10 years in prison. He also was taken into custody.
The judge ordered the couple to pay $91,241 in restitution to the county.
Afterward, Chief Deputy District Attorney Brian Rutledge said he was "very pleased" with the prison time Walsh handed out to the defendants.
"It sends a message to the community that this kind of embezzlement from the needy will not be tolerated," he said.
In court, Rutledge told Walsh that Cholewinski cold-heartedly stole the public funds "over and over and over again" for 17 months from the County Social Service Department while people were regularly lining up outside the agency looking for public assistance checks to escape eviction from their apartments.
The thefts hit the county particularly hard because they came during a severe budget crunch, Rutledge said.
When authorities confronted her about the thefts, Rutledge said, she at first falsely tried to cast blame on other welfare workers, but eventually admitted that she stole the money to help pay her own bills.
Cholewinski also lied about the state of her financial affairs in bankruptcy proceedings, failing to disclose the money she took from the county at the time, Rutledge said.
And she later was almost prosecuted for failing to disclose on a job application with the U.S. Social Security Administration that she had been fired by the county, Rutledge said.
Both Cholewinski and Brown apologized in court for their actions and sought to remain free on probation so that they could continue to work to make amends for their actions.
"The guilt I'm enduring is overwhelming," Cholewinski told Walsh.
Her lawyer, Brent Percival, said Cholewinski has felt nothing but remorse since being charged in the thefts.
"She unfortunately gave in to temptation and the financial difficulties she was having at the time," Percival said. "This was an anomaly caused by stress."
Cholewinski and Brown each pleaded guilty in November to one felony theft count, and Cholewinski pleaded guilty to an additional count of unlawful acts with a computer.
Prosecutors had charged that Cholewinski used her job as a benefits worker for the Social Service Department to funnel $91,241 in checks to her husband between October 2008 and March 31, 2009.
Cholewinski created seven phony financial assistance accounts in her husband's name and was able to regularly obtain county checks for him over the 17-month period, prosecutors alleged.
Cholewinski, who was hired by the county in September 2007, was responsible for determining whether people qualified for housing assistance.
Her job included meeting with clients and, if they qualified, creating a case file with financial information required to meet that eligibility for assistance.
County officials have said additional controls were put in place at the Social Service Department as a result of the investigation into Cholewinski's activities.
Contact reporter Jeff German at jgerman@ reviewjournal.com or 702-380-8135 or read more courts coverage at lvlegalnews.com.