Warrant: St. Johns County Sheriff's finance director embezzled $700K

Scheme fueled by 'financial strain' and 'spending addiction,' records say

By Garrett Pelican - Digital executive producer, Tarik Minor - Anchor, I-TEAM reporter, Elizabeth Campbell - Reporter

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. - The finance director for the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office was arrested Tuesday on a warrant accusing her of embezzling $700,000 from the agency in recent years.

Raye A. Brutnell, 47, turned herself in at the Flagler County jail to face felony fraud, forgery and grand theft charges linked to what investigators suspect was a long-running embezzlement scheme.

Brutnell, an employee since 1991 and the agency’s finance director since 2013, was placed on leave once the investigation began. She was fired immediately after her arrest.

No one answered the door on Friday at a St. Augustine address listed for Brutnell. A Sheriff's Office spokesperson said everyone at the agency is "devastated" by the news.

An arrest warrant indicates two budget and finance employees came forward Nov. 14 after they uncovered 63 checks totaling $673,422 issued to bogus vendors during a five-year span.

In a statement, Sheriff David Shoar praised the employees for bringing the issue to light when they did, adding that investigators are optimistic they will be able to recover any misappropriated money.

 "We were able to take immediate and corrective action," said Shoar.

According to her warrant, Brutnell used variations of relatives' names to create bank accounts for phony vendors, forged signatures on checks to vendors and deposited the checks into her own account.

She said she was motivated by "a financial strain on her family and that she did not realize the magnitude of this fraud until she was provided with the dollar amount," according to the warrant.

"She further stated she did not realize she had a spending addiction until earlier today when she was reviewing her bank records and noticed the amount of money she was spending," the warrant states.

Money taken from the agency's general and benevolence funds was used to pay for the cost of Brutnell's father's stay at a nursing home as well as her own car and mortgage payments.

An agency spokesperson said Brutnell was making just shy of $100,000 at the time of her arrest.

According to the warrant, Brutnell said she acted alone. She said her husband, who is a Florida Department of Law Enforcement agent, had nothing to do with the scheme.

A job description listed on the agency's website says Brutnell reported directly to the sheriff. Her duties included overseeing the agency's budget, payroll, inventory, internal controls, grants and purchasing.

The Polk County Sheriff's Office is running the investigation into Brutnell and Gov. Rick Scott has assigned the case to Brian Haas, the state attorney for Florida’s 10th Judicial Circuit.

Brutnell is represented by Hank Coxe, a high-powered Jacksonville defense attorney who has handled several high-profile cases, including the murder trial of Cristian Fernandez.

Because she was charged for each transaction uncovered by the investigation, Brutnell faces a total of 163 counts. Flagler County jail logs show she was released at 7:15 p.m. Tuesday after posting $265,000 bail.

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