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A Jackson County resident who was the office manager for Cherokee Broadband Enterprises, an entity of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, was sentenced to 18 months in prison with three years of supervised release after pleading guilty to embezzling nearly $200,000 during his time as an office manager for the organization.

Fredrick Thomas Gettins Strohm, 41, is required to pay restitution of nearly $200,000 to the tribe, according to an announcement by the U.S. attorney for the Western District of North Carolina.

Strohm, through his access to his employer’s bank accounts and bank cards, used that access to pay personal expenses and cash to himself without his employer’s permission, according to federal court documents. He also tried to conceal the embezzlement through altered statements to the tribe and deleted computer files. 

Strohm’s arrest and guilty plea were the result of combined investigations among the Cherokee Indian Police Department, the tribal attorney general’s office and the U.S. attorney.

Principal Chief Richard Sneed expressed appreciation to the three entities in a statement. “Cherokee Broadband operated independent of the tribal government for many years,” he said. “When the entity was moved under the tribal government structure, the misuse of resources was discovered.”

Sneed said tribal leaders often speak of accountability, particularly financial accountability.

“I believe this outcome demonstrates the financial systems and processes of the (tribe that) are structured in a way that prevents fraud and adequately protects the assets of the tribe. If not for the stringent financial safeguards of the tribe, this type of abuse could have continued unchecked.”

Dustin Armachain, who is now in charge of Cherokee Broadband Enterprises, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Tribal Attorney General Michael McConnell and Cherokee Indian Police Department Chief Doug Pheasant didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Strohm, through the nature of his employment, had access to Cherokee Broadband’s bank account and bank cards for the purpose of handling business expenses, according to federal court documents. However, investigators said Strohm used his access to those funds to make personal purchases from 2014 to 2018.

Some of the items that documents released in the case say Strohm used his employer’s accounts and cards to purchase were:

  • Numerous items through Amazon, including belts and belt buckles and a mini-helmet display collection.
  • Two customized Jacksonville Jaguars jerseys with his last name placed on the back along with a collage of New York Yankees Hall of Famer and Miami Marlins CEO Derek Jeter.
  • Fog lights for a Dodge Challenger and vaping products.

Strohm was said to have used the same accounts to make cash payments to himself. On Dec. 18, 2017, he used PayPal through Cherokee Broadband to make a $3,000 cash payment to himself. He made another PayPal cash payment Jan. 16, 2018, through Cherokee Broadband, of $5,000 to himself, and made another PayPal cash payment of $2,000 on Jan. 22, 2018. 

Documents also state that Strohm used Cherokee Broadband funds to pay more than $57,000 in credit card bills that were unrelated to the business, about $52,000 of which went to pay his personal credit card bills. 

Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel Bradley, who has been prosecuting the case, said in the bill of information, “All of Strohm’s personal expenditures using (Cherokee Broadband’s) funds, which totaled more than $95,000, were unauthorized and constituted the embezzlement, theft and conversion of (Cherokee Broadband) funds.”

Investigators also accused Strohm of trying to cover up the activities. Bradley wrote, “In or about September 2016, Strohm sent an altered bank statement for the (Cherokee Broadband) bank account to Tribal Finance, with the details about debit purchases that would’ve exposed Strohm’s wrongdoing removed. In addition, during the period of time in which he was embezzling (Cherokee Broadband) funds, Strohm attempted to conceal evidence by deleting QuickBooks files from the (Cherokee Broadband) computer located in Strohm’s office.”

Bradley said tribal authorities were able to recover the deleted files, and what they uncovered corroborated the facts stated in the bill.

Asheville-based attorney Andrew Banzhoff, who is representing Strohm, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. However, in his sentencing memorandum and request for variance from advisory guidelines, Banzhoff describes his client as a traumatized individual who had been struggling through mental health issues, particularly during the dissolution of his marriage.

Banzhoff also described Strohm as an active and stable parent who has remained gainfully employed. “He has provided stability for both of these children following the demise of the marriage,” Banzhoff said. “He continues to provide a loving and supportive environment to both children.”

Banzhoff said Strohm suffered significant injuries and trauma because of a car accident when he was 11 years old. His sister died in that accident. He also said Strohm was undergoing significant mental and emotional stress during the time of the offenses, and that, along with the lack of a significant criminal history, continuing employment and taking responsibility for his family, should be taken into account for considering a variance from the guidelines.

“During the time period of the offense in this case, Mr. Strohm’s marriage was slowly dissolving,” Banzhoff said. “He had a very difficult time during this period. He was prescribed medication to help him deal with the depression and the emotional toll of the divorce. Mr. Strohm’s mental health difficulties during this period contributed significantly to his commission of the offense. He reports that his struggles during the decline of his marriage contributed to his poor decision-making.”

Strohm also had letters from friends and his father, Fredrick T. Strohm, to presiding U.S. District Judge Martin Reidinger stating that the crime was out of character, much of it focusing on his Christian background. 

Fredrick T. Strohm asked for mercy in his son’s sentencing. He wrote about his son’s injuries from the accident that killed his sister and about his marital struggles. During the time of his son’s marital problems, the elder Strohm said he and his wife were cut out of his son’s and his grandchildren’s lives, and now they can be a support group for them again.

“I have made a commitment to (Strohm), along with his entire support group, never to be separated from (Strohm) and his children, my grandchildren, again. We need each other, support each other and love each other,” the elder Strohm said.

“Recidivism is like backsliding; it is not in our lexicon. Our family strongly believes in loyalty and commitment. Our word is our bond. We make this commitment, your honor, to you and your court. We will never again be a defendant in a courtroom.”

Joseph Martin

Joseph Martin is a Carolina Public Press contributing writer based in Murphy. Email info@carolinapublicpress.org to contact the Carolina Public Press news team.