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Guilty Plea In Largest Public Embezzlement Case In Washington State History

RICHLAND, Wash. – The state of Washington’s largest public sector embezzlement case ever moves forward Thursday with a guilty plea. A public works employee admits he took the money over more than 20 years in Franklin County in the southeast part of the state.

Nearly $3 million is gone. Dennis Merle Huston of Pasco, Washington, says he spent the taxpayer’s money mostly on cocaine and gambling. The scheme started in 1990, when Huston opened up a bank account under a business name that sold material to the county. The business shuttered, but the public works finance director kept writing checks and collecting them before they were mailed out.

Franklin County Commissioner Rick Miller says the county was prime for a theft of this kind since its checks-and-balances and computing systems had not kept pace with its rapid growth.

“I hate to say the word 'embarrassing.' It is," MIller says. "There was mistakes made a long time ago when this county only had 20,000 people instead of the 80,000 it has now. It’s just a change of times and we’ve got to keep up with it.”

Huston could get up to 25 years in prison and be required to pay more than $2.8 million in restitution.

Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.