ASTORIA – Cindy Howe, the former director of the Sunset Empire Transit District, faces 10 counts of first-degree theft and four counts of official misconduct following her arraignment in Clatsop County Circuit Court May 7.

“The allegations are that Howe accepted cruises, which were a premium, in exchange for tens of thousands of dollars in transit advertising through New Northwest Broadcasters,” Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis said. “Six of the felony counts allege Howe directed that Sunset Empire Transit bus services valued at thousands of dollars were not changed to the Star of the Sea School in Astoria where her daughter was a student.”

Marquis said Howe plead not guilty to the charges.

Howe’s court appearance followed nearly a one year investigation by the Oregon Department of Justice at Marquis’ request. He presented his findings to a grand jury in March. The indictment became public once Howe was arraigned.

Jay Flint, the Sunset Empire Transit District Director who took over following Howe’s resignation last year, said the results of the investigation follow the district’s internal probe that produce documents that were turned over to the Oregon Department of Justice.

“Under the agreement with New Northwest Broadcasters, if you sold a certain amount of ads you received perks like several free cruises and one year she received a plane voucher,” Flint said. “This is above and beyond the $50 limit a public official can receive as a gift. This was done without the transit board’s approval.”

Flint said the district board has taken steps to protect the transit services and its customers.

“We want to reassure the public we have worked hard to correct those mistakes and we have put into place the internal controls between finances and board oversight to insure that these same mistakes will not happen again.”

Howe now lives in Georgia. Marquis said she flew to Oregon to cooperate with the case. He said did not object to her being booked and released pending the next step in the case.

"Because she has no criminal history and she paid to come back to Clatsop County and that saved us a ton of money," he said.

A hearing to determine if the case is resolved or to set a trial date is scheduled for July 11.

The following is a press statement released by Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis on May 8.

Cynthia Louise Howe, age 54, was arraigned in Clatsop County Circuit Court on May 7, 2012 on 10 felony counts of Theft in the First Degree and four counts of misdemeanor Official Misconduct in connection with her former job as Executive Director of the Sunset Empire Transit District (SETD), the publicly-funded bus transport system for Clatsop County. Howe had been with the SEDT for over 15 years when she left in January of 2011.

Howe was released on a conditional release agreement where she promises to re-appear in court on July 11, 2012 to answer the charges brought by a Clatsop County Grand Jury in late March.

District Attorney Josh Marquis explained that the Oregon Department of Justice had performed all the investigative legwork with his assistance and without any additional cost to Clatsop County. A senior special investigator for the Oregon Attorney General's Office has been working on the case for close to a year, gathering documents and statements from former board members, employees and others that might have information about what happened at SETD.

If convicted, the charges carry a theoretical 5 years in prison for each felony theft count and a year in jail for each misdemeanor, although Marquis explained it would likely be much less under Oregon's sentencing guidelines and because Howe has no criminal record.

Marquis explained to the court at Howe's arraignment that she was charged in connection with personally accepting free cruises for four years in a row valued at between almost $2000 and $4000 each, in exchange for SETD buying large amounts of radio advertising at a local radio station. The other felony counts come from Howe's giving away several thousand dollars in bus services to the former Star of the Sea school associated with St Mary's Catholic Church. Howe had been a volunteer at the church and her child attended the school.

Marquis explained that as a public employee she did not have the right to "donate" public services beyond the amount allowed by SETD's Board of Directors.

The SETD dramatically cut back services and laid off over half of its employees in 2011 citing massive funding problems. Marquis said the vast majority of the financial problems suffered by the SETD were not the subject of the year-long criminal investigation.

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