DA dismisses embezzlement case over grand jury interference

By Barney Lerten | KTVZ.com | October 24, 2018

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BEND, Ore. - Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel filed a motion Tuesday to dismiss a 15-count indictment against a Bend woman accused of embezzling nearly $200,000 from a painting company, saying the company owner met and had improper discussions with a grand juror who was sitting on the case.

Gretchen Marie Miller, 33, had pleaded not guilty to the charges last month and a judge set her trial for next June.

Hummel said he filed the motion to dismiss the indictment the grand jury returned in July, charging Miller with theft, forgery and falsifying business records. He did so "with prejudice," meaning the charges cannot be brought again.

"It's over," he told NewsChannel 21.

Miller, who was a bookkeeper for Bend Painting, was charged with embezzling funds from the company and doctoring the company's books to hide her tracks.

The indictment was dismissed, Hummel said, because while the grand jury hearing was pending, "the owner of Bend Painting met with a grand juror on the case and discussed with him the merits of the case," Hummel said in a news release.

"After this discussion. the grand juror continued to sit on the case and ultimately participated in the jury vote that resulted in a true bill charging Miller with 15 counts," he said. "The grand juror did not report this matter to the court or to the district attorney."

Hummel also issued the following statement:

"No individual criminal case is more important than the sanctity of our criminal justice system. When misconduct occurs, I'll root it out and make things right. Grand jurors should never discuss with anyone what happens in a grand jury hearing and victims of crime should not seek out grand jurors to put their spin on the evidence. The scales of justice were tipped in this case, and I won't stand for that in Deschutes County."

Along with his motion to dismiss the charges, Hummel filed an affidavit, noting the case was presented to the grand jury over two dates, on June 1 and July 9.

He said a witness who testified on the first day of the hearing later told police the owner of Bend Painting spoke to a grand juror between the two hearing dates.

The witness told police that the company owner "told her that he was personally acquainted with the grand juror" and "said he did not believe the suspect," and that "if any other grand juror did believe the suspect, he was going to convince them to change their mind."

Hummel said police interviewed the grand juror, who confirmed he engaged in a conversation with the alleged victim about the case. However, he denied the company owner's claim that he did not believe Miller, or that he committed to change the minds of any grand jurors who did.

Hummel told NewsChannel 21 the "grand juror should have reported the conversation so he could have been removed from the case prior to the vote. (We) can't have one juror privy to information that was not presented during the hearing (and was presented by a biased source)."

NewsChannel 21 has attempted to contact Bend Painting owner T.J. Iams but has not heard back.

Meanwhile, Miller's Portland defense attorney, Jacob Houze, issued the following statement:

"Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel has dismissed a 15 count indictment against our client, Gretchen Miller.

"We brought to Mr. Hummel's attention several critical pieces of information that were gathered during the police investigation. That information revealed that there had been wrongdoing in the grand jury proceedings between a grand juror and the alleged victim.

"In addition, the information revealed that the alleged victim made a statement to a witness outside of the grand jury proceeding indicating that he could not remember whether he and Ms. Miller had a relationship or whether he gave Ms. Miller authorization to use the money.

"When we brought this information to Mr. Hummel, he investigated it thoroughly and ultimately made the correct decision to dismiss Ms. Miller's case 'with prejudice' - meaning the charges can never be brought again.

"We share Mr. Hummel's view that the integrity of the justice system is of the utmost importance.

"Ms. Miller has always maintained her innocence and feels vindicated by the decision of Mr. Hummel," Houze concluded.

Hummel also shared with NewsChannel 21 a letter he sent Tuesday to the attorneys for each of the 41 defendants who had a case before the grand jury that the grand juror in question sat on.

The DA wrote that while some aspects of the improper contact and discussion are clear "there is a dispute as to who initiated the conversation, whether they were friends, the details of what they discussed, and whether the grand juror committed to anything. The grand juror did not report this conversation to the court or to me."

Hummel wrote that he had considered filing charges against the grand juror and/or alleged victim of obstructing governmental or judicial administration, second-degree official misconduct and/or contempt of court.

"I ultimately declined to do so because based on the disputed facts regarding the conversation at issue, there is insufficient evidence to prove that the alleged victim and/or the grand juror violated any of these statutes," he wrote. "However, the conversation about the merits of the case tainted the true bill that was returned; consequently, I filed a motion to dismiss that Indictment with prejudice."

"I am unaware of any communication the grand juror in question had with any witnesses or alleged victims in any other case and he denies engaging in any such communications," Hummel continued.

"I have zero evidence that this grand juror did anything untoward in your client(s) case(s), or any case other than the one described here," he told the other case attorneys. "Please let me know if you have reason to question the validity of the true bill that was returned in your client's case(s)."

Hummel told NewsChannel 21, "I have no reason to believe this tainted other cases. Defendants deserved to know though, in case they want to argue to the contrary."