Prosecutors say Rocky Lyons used Butte Rescue Mission accounts to make $11,391 in purchases for personal use when she was the nonprofit organization’s executive director, including pay for travel and accommodations that weren’t board approved.
They filed a felony theft charge against Lyons on Wednesday that also alleges she tried to obtain 227 hours of vacation pay when she was only entitled to 44 hours by having the office manager “rerun her paycheck” without board knowledge.
That would have resulted in an overpayment of $5,210, bringing the total theft or attempted theft by embezzlement to $16,602, the initial charging document states.
Lyons was the Mission’s executive director from September 2014 to Jan. 23, 2020, when she was fired. She filed a wrongful termination lawsuit within weeks, and the attorney representing her in that case said Lyons denies allegations of any criminal or professional misconduct.
“I believe that this is a disingenuous attempt to gain leverage in a civil suit, where in that civil suit, the fallacies of the Butte Rescue Mission and the Board were exposed,” Lawrence Henke, an attorney at Vicevich Law in Butte, told The Montana Standard on Thursday.
Numerous letters and documents have been exchanged between attorneys in the civil case and in one, an attorney for the Mission raises issues about vacation pay and Mission credit card purchases that she says don’t seem related to Mission business.
But Henke said nowhere “in this entire litany of back and forth with the Mission has any allegation of theft been made.”
The charge was filed in Justice Court and besides dates and dollar amounts, there were no specifics about what allegedly happened. Prosecutors spell all that out when felony cases are later transferred to District Court, which can take a few weeks or longer.
Lyons made an initial appearance before Justice of the Peace Ben Pezdark late Thursday afternoon. She was booked and released without bond, which won’t be required if she complies with pretrial services.
The charge — theft by common scheme — carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison a fine up to $50,000 and possible restitution.
The Standard called the Mission for comment and was referred to Butte attorney Cindy Walker, who is representing the Mission in the civil lawsuit and a countersuit it filed against Lyons. A phone message was left for her Thursday.
The Mission issued a statement in late January 2020 saying Lyons was no longer executive director, but it provided no detailed reasons for the move.
“The board of directors recognizes the contributions Rocky Lyons has made to the Mission, however, the board has decided that a change in leadership is required for the long-term success of the Mission,” Paul Buckley, president of the Mission board at the time, said then in a news release.
It said Lyons had faced numerous challenges, including the closing of the Second Street homeless shelter and the opening of the Center of Hope shelter.
“Rocky has served as a faithful servant to Christ in caring for the hurting in Butte and the surrounding communities and the board wishes her well in her future endeavors,” the statement said.
Prior to filing her lawsuit, Henke says, Lyons disputed her vacation pay and final paycheck and through counsel requested reasons for being fired. Walker, in a response letter, listed 18 reasons, including failing to comply with overtime laws, properly train employees and numerous other duties.
It also said she made disparaging comments about board members and donors and made statements that resulted in negative publicity. But nothing was said then about things alleged in the criminal charge, Henke said, and he only learned about that when contacted by the Standard.
Lyons filed the lawsuit in the spring of 2020, saying she had served with distinction for five years. She was never subjected to disciplinary proceedings and her performance was never deemed unsatisfactory, the suit says.
As part of her employment, she said she used a Butte Rescue Mission computer and email system and used private email accounts for personal matters. After she was fired, she learned that her private email accounts had been accessed and passwords changed, the lawsuit claims.
“The only source of that unauthorized access was by and through the Butte Rescue Mission computer system,” it says. “This invasion into her personal email accounts wad done in such a manner as to outrage or cause mental suffering, shame, or humiliation to a person of ordinary sensibilities.”
The suit says the Mission owes Lyons at least $7,000 in accrued and unpaid vacation time plus unspecified lost wages resulting from wrongful discharge and punitive damages, among other things.
The Mission filed a response and a counter suit saying Lyons was discharged for “good cause” and claims that during her tenure as director, she misappropriated Mission funds and converted them for the benefit of herself and/or her family.
“Plaintiff has refused, and continues to refuse, to explain how such expenditures were related to BRM (Butte Rescue Mission) or to reimburse BRM,” the counterclaim states.
Henke said the Mission made those claims in the civil case, and Lyons addressed them in a deposition. The criminal charge was filed on the eve of more depositions, he said, and he accused the mission of “attempting to fabricate criminal charges from past actions which were known of and approved by the board at the time.”
“Ms. Lyons denies the allegations of any criminal conduct, or professional misconduct, and will vigorously defend herself against any charges,” he said.