A Missoula judge on Monday set forth the details of a sentence he intends to foist upon a former University of Montana employee who embezzled $300,000 from the university.

Christine Bitterman, 49, who in August pleaded guilty to five counts of felony theft for bilking her former employers at UM's Residence Life office, will be sentenced Oct. 11 to 20 years in the state Department of Corrections with 15 years suspended.

Bitterman has been screened and approved for placement in the Intensive Supervision Program in Butte.

The former UM employee now lives in Sheridan, and appeared in Missoula County District Court for a scheduled sentencing hearing Monday. But Judge Dusty Deschamps did not go so far as to impose Bitterman's sentence.

Instead, he continued the hearing until next month owing to the requests of defense attorney Milt Datsopoulos, who asked for additional time to wrangle up five witnesses to speak on Bitterman's behalf.

The need to call witnesses was precluded when Deschamps announced he will follow a plea agreement in the case. The judge said the plea bargain was an "appropriate disposition" because it allows Bitterman to get a job and begin repaying the money she owes.

"She's going to owe a third of a million dollars, so she'll need to have a job," Deschamps said. "Given the magnitude of the crime I would follow this plea agreement."

Deschamps said his decision was "based on a real quick skim through" of a pre-sentence investigation report in Bitterman's case, but Datsopoulos agreed to proceed to sentencing next month without the witnesses.

Bitterman's thieving began in 2003 and continued through this past July. Her scheme unraveled when a UM housing tenant inquired to the University Villages office as to why she owed money despite having paid rent.

An investigation by UM's Office of Public Safety revealed that Bitterman spent more money per month than was coming into her bank accounts. A criminal complaint filed in March charged her with five felonies, and accused her of carrying large amounts of cash, buying lunch for coworkers, lending them money and shopping online at work.

UM's internal audit made a "conservative" estimate that as much as $304,000 had been stolen. The audit showed Bitterman used a unique university password 785 times for "cashier sessions," during which she entered deposits in the accounting system and pocketed the cash.

The UM investigation, conducted by Detective Chris Croft, showed Bitterman was known for carrying a "sizable wad" of cash, and made $400 payments to an online prescription store on a monthly basis.

"After reviewing such records, Croft concluded that Bitterman was living well beyond her legitimate financial means," court records state.

eporter Tristan Scott can be reached at (406) 730-1067 or at tscott@missoulian.com.


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