HOUSTON COUNTY, TX (KTRE) - Two former employees of the "Houston County Courier" turned themselves in to authorities Tuesday morning in connection to allegations that they embezzled several hundred thousand dollars from the newspaper's parent company in a period from at least 2009 to 2011.
Cynthia Jeannine Rhone and Jerry Rhone turned themselves into the Houston County Sheriff's Department. The couple joint surrender came after a Houston County grand jury passed down felony indictments on them on Sept. 30.
Jeannine Rhone was indicted for theft more than $200,000, fraudulent use of identifying information, and forgery. Jerry Rhone was indicted for theft between $100,000 and $200,000 fraudulent use of identifying information, and forgery.
Houston County Courier Editor-in-Chief, Lynda Jones said she never thought Rhone would do something like this.
"It just blew me away," Jones said. "I couldn't believe it and the the more I learned the worse it got. I felt betrayed and angry."
Jones said she has been editor for about four years. When she started she recalled Rhone telling her that the paper was struggling.
"The economy is not good in East Texas so I just got sucked in and I believed it," Jones said. "As editor I don't deal with finances so I really had no clue. I felt like I was lied to and when I found out what the gravity of it was I was like wow and where did it go and the realization that things weren't as bad as I'd been told they were."
According to the texts of the indictments, the couple committed the crimes against Alvin Holly, the owner of Polk County Publishing. Polk County Publishing owns the Houston County Courier and seven other community newspapers in East Texas.
A story that appeared on the "Houston County Courier's" Facebook page stated that the time period covered in the current indictments against the Rhones is 2009 to 2011. In the story Houston County District Attorney Donna Kaspar said that newspaper's financial information from 2012 to 2013 is still under review at this time.
The story stated that Jeannine Rhone was employed as the general manager of the "Houston County Courier from November 2001 to March 10, 2014. Jerry Rhone was employed in the newspaper's production department from February 2002 to December 2010.
Kelli Barnes, the operations manager for Polk County Publishing, said her company has had many problems with the "Houston County Courier" over the years. She said the newspaper often didn't have enough money to pay its employees and its bills, so Polk County Publishing had to foot the bill for the costs.
Earlier this year, Barnes went to the newspaper in an effort to find the problem and get caught up. She brought an accountant with her, and they immediately found evidence of embezzlement. Barnes said Rhone was placed on administrative leave and was later terminated from her position as general manager.
Barnes said they looked through the newspaper's financial records dating back to 2009 from March to mid-July. She said the statute of limitations prevented them from going back any further than 2009.
"We were hurting terribly," Barnes said. "When we were able to stop the bleeding, immediately the Courier was able to pay its own bill. It's going to take some time for the company to build itself back up. It could have shut us down."
However, Polk County Publishing's East Texas newspapers are doing well, and their revenues are up, Barnes said. She added that the "Houston County Courier" is doing fine and all of the newspapers bills are getting paid on time.
"We're doing well now," Jones said. "I mean we're still recovering, company-wide, but business is good. People are still buying the paper and the money is coming here instead of going somewhere else. We're going to survive. We are going to celebrate our 125th anniversary in January and we're planning a big special section for that."
"The hope at this point is that they don't get away with it," Barnes said. "Businesses need to know that they can trust the people that they put over their money. Need to show people that they cannot get away with this."