Christine Bitterman has yet to repay any of the $300,000 she stole from her job at the University of Montana Residence Life Office. But Missoula County District Judge Dusty Deschamps had an idea of how she could save some money toward restitution.
"I've got to make a comment," the judge said Tuesday, moments after Bitterman pleaded guilty to five felony counts of theft. "Do you go to tanning booths?"
The deeply bronzed Bitterman assured the judge her skin darkens naturally in the summer.
"I was going to say that if you're spending money on tanning booths, you'd better stop," the judge said.
The complaint filed against Bitterman in March didn't mention tanning booths, but it accused her of doing a lot of online shopping at work, carrying large amounts of cash and buying lunch for her coworkers and lending them money.
On Tuesday, Bitterman said "guilty," over and over again to the charges that she stole the money beginning in 2003 and continuing until the embezzlement was detected a year ago.
She used a university password to get into accounts, and then indicated that some Residence Life payments made in cash came instead in the form of a check, according to the charging documents.
"I handled university funds and I took university funds not mine that I was not authorized to take," Bitterman said Tuesday.
The scheme unraveled when a UM tenant asked the University Villages housing office why she still owed money, even though she had paid her rent.
A University of Montana Public Safety Office investigation into Bitterman's bank records determined she spent more per month than was coming in to her accounts. The university since has made it impossible for Residence Life cashiers to adjust students' accounts, and all adjustments are reviewed by the associate director of the department.
Each of the charges against Bitterman carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in the Montana State Prison and/or a $50,000 fine.
The plea agreement reached in the case calls for a 20-year sentence under Department of Corrections supervision, with 15 of those suspended.
Deschamps agreed to a request by Bitterman's attorney, Milt Datsopoulos, that she be screened for intensive supervision and for community-based programs.
That would allow her to get a job and begin to pay the money back, Datsopoulos said.
Under questioning from Deschamps, he said Bitterman hasn't paid back any of the money; nor does she have the means to do so.
"She intends to pay some back," he said.
Deschamps set sentencing for Sept. 12.