by Brianna Bailey Published: May 10, 2017 3:32 PM CDT Updated: May 10, 2017 3:47 PM CDT
Marissa’s Room, a children’s clothing boutique Melissa Morton opened with family members in 2011, is shown. [The Oklahoman Archives]
A former accountant for the Oklahoma Beef Council faces federal criminal charges accusing her of stealing more than $2.6 million from the nonprofit over a seven-year period allegedly to fund a children’s clothing boutique she opened with her family.
Melissa Day Morton, 45, of Edmond, was charged Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Oklahoma City with one count of bank fraud and two counts of filing false tax returns.
Peter Scimeca, an attorney for Morton, said in an email that his client is remorseful and is in the process of selling all her assets to repay the money.
"Mrs. Morton profoundly regrets her actions during employment with the Oklahoma Beef Council. She accepts responsibility and has and continues to fully cooperate with the FBI, U.S. attorney’s office, IRS and Oklahoma Beef Council in an aggressive effort to quickly pay back as much money as possible," Scimeca said. "Melissa apologizes to all those who trusted her and most importantly her co-workers and family."
Morton is the owner of the children’s clothing boutique Marissa’s Room in Edmond. She opened the store in 2011 with family members, according to news archives.
According to the charges, Morton wrote about 790 fraudulent checks to herself from the Oklahoma Beef Council’s bank account between 2009 and 2016. Morton used the money to finance her retail business, the charges claim.
The bank fraud charge carries a maximum prison sentence of 30 years and each count of filing a false tax return has a maximum sentence of 3 years.
The Oklahoma Beef Council fired Morton, began an internal investigation, hired an outside accounting firm and reported the matter to law enforcement when evidence of the embezzlement came to light in 2016, the nonprofit said in a statement. The nonprofit also filed a civil suit against Morton in October to recover funds.
"This has been an extremely complex situation. We have appreciated the patience and support of Oklahoma’s beef producers as it has progressed," the Oklahoma Beef Council said in a statement. "We are limited in the details we can share and continue to be so due to ongoing criminal and civil matters. It is our understanding the next step will involve a hearing with a plea entered by the defendant."
The nonprofit has since improved its accounting practices and hired a third-party firm to handle its books, it said.
The Oklahoma Beef Council administers funds in the state from the federal beef checkoff program to promote beef consumption. Money for the program comes from U.S. beef producers, who pay $1 per head of cattle sold. Proceeds from the beef checkoff program go to promotion, research and new product development, as well as other marketing for the U.S. beef industry.
Cattleman Tom Fanning, chairman of the Oklahoma Beef Council, said in a statement that the nonprofit would continue to share information with beef producers as the legal process continues.
"It is important to know since we turned this situation over to authorities, one of our overriding goals has been to work toward justice for our organization and the farming and ranching community we serve," Fanning said. "Today’s charges are a major move forward toward reaching that goal."