Embezzlement case prompts jail sentence

Hughes

TRAVERSE CITY — A former food production company owner accused of embezzling thousands of dollars from the business will spend months in jail following his guilty plea.

Jeffrey Lee Hughes, 56, flashed a thumbs up to his supporters who filled much of a 13th Circuit Courtroom on Friday. They attended a hearing where Judge Kevin Elsenheimer sentenced Hughes to six months in jail — 90 days will be held pending Hughes' jail behavior.

He pleaded guilty July 27 to an added count of embezzlement of $1,000 or more, but less than $20,000. Grand Traverse County prosecutors agreed to drop two additional embezzlement charges in exchange for the plea.

Court records show Mark and Carol Vittert purchased majority stakes in Brownwood Farms in 2013 and kept Hughes on to oversee company operations. An accountant suspected Hughes used company funds inappropriately, according to court records. A forensic audit shows nearly $40,000 in unauthorized purchases paid to Hughes from 2013 to 2016, records state.

“This was more than just a property crime,” said Mark Vittert, reading from a statement. “It was an ongoing strategy of deception and betrayal from the beginning.”

Hughes worked the business on his own before the Vitterts became involved and made decisions on what constituted business-related and non-business related costs, said Gerald Chefalo, Hughes' attorney.

The Vitterts did not know of some decisions Hughes made, though he said his decisions were made in the best interest of the company, according to a letter he read before his sentencing.

“The fatal flaw was Mr. Hughes did not change how he was doing business when the partners came in,” Chefalo said.

Hughes claimed he had “every intention to get back on my financial feet and repay it” during the July 27 hearing, according to court transcripts.

Vittert challenged the assertion.

“His thefts were not to regain financial standing, as the court can see,” he read. “They were for home improvements, fine dining in Chicago and ski vacations in Colorado and more.”

The missing funds eventually prompted a lawsuit that led Hughes to lose his job and $500 in a settlement a judge ordered he pay to the Vitterts.

Vittert did not request any restitution from Hughes in this case.

A significant crowd came to the courtroom to support Hughes — many wrote a collection of support letters court officials received.

Hughes came to the court with a clean criminal record prior to the case. He apologized to the Vitterts, his family and others for his actions that led to the conviction.

“I deeply regret pulling them through this,” Hughes said.

Staff writer