Kennebec Journal / Morning Sentinel

Claudia Viles, even after tax theft conviction, commands community favor

The former Anson tax collector’s supporters say her compassionate, trusting character is at odds with her criminal conviction; the prosecution says Viles’ kindness had a “darker side” that included favoritism.

by Rachel Ohm, Staff Writer | @rachel_ohm
September 10, 2016

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ANSON — Claudia Viles was a “Secret Santa” who anonymously dropped off presents for needy children around Christmas, a doting mother and grandmother who persevered after the loss of her son to a drug overdose, and a friend who showed up at just the right time to talk or go for a walk.

She is “the kind of person you dream about having in life as a friend,” according to one woman who said Viles helped her get through leukemia. Viles was the leader of a group of friends who would take spontaneous road trips each year that included time not just for fun but also an emphasis on doing something for others. She also once “saved the lives” of a neighbor and her sisters who had moved to Oklahoma and needed to escape the hand of their abusive father. After a single phone call, Viles had booked them plane tickets to come back to Maine.

Meanwhile, though, she was committing felony theft as Anson’s tax collector, embezzling more than $500,000 in excise taxes over several years from the coffers of a town with a population of about 2,500. Authorities say she manipulated adding machine tapes to hide her takings in what the Office of the Maine Attorney General has called the largest-ever instance of municipal theft prosecuted by the state of Maine.

Claudia Viles listens to victim impact statements Sept. 2 during her sentencing at Somerset County Superior Court in Skowhegan. Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans
Claudia Viles listens to victim impact statements Sept. 2 during her sentencing at Somerset County Superior Court in Skowhegan. Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

Viles, 66, who maintained her innocence throughout her trial and vowed to fight “as long as I am breathing” to clear her name, was sentenced Sept. 2 to serve five years in prison and pay $566,257 in restitution.

Many of her supporters say her compassionate and trusting character is at odds with her criminal conviction. The prosecution, though, says they also found evidence Viles played favorites by bending or breaking the rules for some people, helping to shape the portrait of a small-town tax collector who would go above and beyond to help.

Viles, who is free while the verdict is appealed, did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this article.

It’s not unusual for people with good reputations to commit crimes, especially white-collar offenses such as embezzlement, or to have large support from members of their community, according to at least one criminal justice expert.

“It’s not unheard of for good people to commit crimes; in fact, it’s common,” said Jeffrey Butts, director of the John Jay College Research and Evaluation Center, a criminal justice academy in New York City. “Most of the people who get caught up in the justice system are not evil people in all areas of their life. A few are, but they’re a small proportion.”

In nearly 50 letters submitted to the Somerset County Court on behalf of Viles, many supporters — including family, friends, residents and local professionals, even the principal of an elementary school and a tax collector in a neighboring town — detailed Viles’ unwavering generosity and thoughtfulness.

“These are the people that know her the very best and have been around her the entire time she was tax collector,” said Viles’ attorney, Walter McKee. “If something was going on, certainly any kind of illegal activity at the level the state suggested, they would have seen it; and they didn’t.”

But favoritism that Viles showed some residents might have played into the large amount of support she received, according to Assistant Attorney General Leanne Robbin, the case’s prosecutor.

Through its investigation, the attorney general’s office learned that Viles allowed some residents to pay less on their motor vehicle registrations or get away with not showing proof of insurance, a state requirement, Robbin said. Many of the kind acts detailed in the letters of support for Viles have a “darker side” that is related to the theft in some way, she said.

“Undoubtedly, people that get that kind of favoritism are grateful,” Robbin said. “Anyone is going to be grateful to someone that breaks the rules for them.”

But it also may have been simpler than that, according to Butts, who said that, “Once people decide they like you, it can be hard, especially in a community setting, for that to be broken down. People are really interesting. They do things you don’t expect.”

THE RAINBOW

Viles grew up in Anson and graduated from Anson Academy in 1967, a “completely caring and honest girl in spite of working in a very corrupt political world,” according to her mother, Mary Farley, who was among the letter writers.

She earned an associate degree in medical science from Thomas College in Waterville, according to court documents, then worked as a medical secretary in Kingfield and married her high school sweetheart, Glenn Viles, in 1971.

They had three children — Michael, Jana and Daniel — and now have six grandchildren.

Glenn Viles operated a trucking business and garage in Anson while Claudia Viles went to work in 1973 as the elected town treasurer in Anson, then beginning in 1976 as a part-time secretary at the Town Office. She was first elected to the post of tax collector in 1982, a position she would hold until her resignation in 2015.

“She was always kind, caring and willing to help,” wrote Frank Gleason, a former selectman in the town and founder of Anson’s recreation program. “She helped many young people with her kindness and caring.”

While the children were growing up, the Viles household was often where the neighborhood kids would hang out — described in one letter as “kids central” — and a place that none of the parents had to worry about as their children played four square in the yard or joined the Viles family for supper. Claudia and Glenn Viles reportedly had an exemplary marriage, with many letter writers describing their teamwork and love of each other. “She is my best friend and the rock our family relies on,” Glenn Viles wrote to the court.

On Saturdays they went to community yard sales, and years later they shared their camp in Embden, complete with a maple sugar shack, with friends and family, according to the letters.

Viles was a “Secret Santa” who would bring presents to the doorsteps of needy families, ring the doorbell and disappear, dropping off toys or warm clothes that were needed. She was known for comforting the sick and those diagnosed with cancer — sending cards to friends even though they lived in the same town, sharing books on grief, showing up at the door with homemade soup or an offer to go for a walk, and remembering to text one woman who had lost her mother on Mother’s Day, knowing that it would be a tough time for her.

Claudia “is the kind of person you dream about having in life as a friend one who you never have to worry about spending anything on or buying things for because it is the time and talks you share,” wrote Rachel Welch, of Embden. “The person is not a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow but the rainbow where the true beauty lies.”

CALM ON SURFACE

At her job, Viles always put customers first, taking time to register cars for customers who stopped at her home or, in one case, fulfilling her duty as a notary by performing a marriage for a young couple who knocked on her door, according to the letters. Her positive attitude and composure under pressure were defining traits, and visitors to her office were reminded of them in the decorations she kept.

One sign read, “It is easy enough to be happy when life goes by like a song, but the man worth while is the man with a smile when everything goes dead wrong” and another, “Work like a duck — stay calm on the surface, but paddle like crazy underneath.”

She was easy to relate to and never too busy to answer questions, always willing to help residents through the confusing process of motor vehicle registrations, the letters said.

“One year my grandfather was visiting on Christmas Day and we noticed his vehicle registration had expired,” Anson resident Ray Richards wrote. “We called Claudia at her home and she invited my grandfather to bring the registration to her, and she renewed it that very day.”

In her own life, Viles maintained a self-possession and a positive attitude, according to many of the letter writers, who described her strength and ability to help her family get through hard times, including the death of her own son, Michael, to a drug overdose in 2009.

“She is truly a compassionate person who cares deeply about others, even when her own life is in turmoil,” wrote one woman who said that Claudia comforted her after her daughter tried twice to commit suicide. The attempts happened around the same time that Viles lost her son.

“She came to my home and we cried together,” the woman wrote. “I will never forget what she told me.”

After Michael’s death, Claudia applied for and was awarded guardianship of his 4-year-old son, Christian, whom she cared for, ultimately helping to reunite him with his mother, who had been unable to care for him when Michael died.

Through it all — including the recent trial — Viles never drank alcohol and was often the rock for her family, they wrote.

“I have wondered if people understood this as numerous articles were written over the past two years with so little public reaction from her,” wrote Viles’ son, Dan. “Under the normal conditions of office work or a daily household this characteristic (composure) inspires confidence, but in the face of such serious charges did she seem glib? Callous?”

He said he knew for a fact that it was a difficult time for her.

VILES OVERCOME

Viles had time to visit with the sick and grieving because she was setting her own office hours — which were less than 40 hours per week — and often was not at the Town Office, according to Robbin.

Town officials ultimately discovered her theft after installing a new computer system in the fall of 2014 that showed discrepancies between the amount of excise tax collected and what was deposited.

An elected official, Viles also had the discretion to set her own salary, which ranged from $30,000 to $40,000 per year and was paid at random increments depending on when she submitted invoices to the town.

And when she was generous, it was because she often was spending town money, not her own, according to Robbin.

Even so, no definitive explanation has been offered for why Viles took the money. Superior Court Justice Robert Mullen said at the time of Viles’ sentencing that he was puzzled in seeking an explanation for the crime.

There are dozens of reasons why people steal, according to Butts, the John Jay College research director, who said that most of the time it boils down to opportunity, and that in Viles’ case a lack of oversight might have contributed to her motivation. “She sounds like someone who slowly got themselves into a situation where they were padding their salary, thinking no one would notice or care,” he said.

After a town audit confirmed bookkeeping discrepancies found through the new computer system, selectmen at the March 2015 Town Meeting announced to residents their discovery that money was missing. Police in April confiscated $58,500 in cash from the Vileses’ home — money she said came from her annual salary and that Robbin said she was able to stockpile because they were living off of money stolen from the Town Office.

Their real estate holdings included their home in Anson, Glenn Viles’ garage, another property in Anson and a 131-acre camp in Embden on a private pond. On a recent day this week when a reporter visited, Viles was not at the camp property, which is an estate named J. Belle Pond Camps with multiple buildings on a dead-end dirt road.

Their mortgage balance was $45,000 even though Glenn Viles was reporting just $15,000 in commission annually when the Viles’ filed their tax returns late in 2015, according to Robbin.

Some residents who said they knew Claudia were shocked at the allegations against her, but after hearing evidence presented at trial, they came to believe that she did, in fact, steal the money.

At her sentencing, resident Carl Anderson told the court, “Claudia is a thief.”

Yet, he continued, “she is a pleasant woman who was overcome with greed and stole from the taxpayers.”

Even so, others still say they still are not convinced of her guilt.

“Maybe she did take the whole thing, but I don’t think so,” said 80-year-old Phyllis Berry, who lives not far from Viles in Anson and said she has known her for Viles’ entire life. “She’s always been extremely nice, a good neighbor.”

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