A Yell County woman was sentenced Tuesday in federal court to a year of probation and ordered to pay more than $27,000 to the Social Security Administration in restitution for benefits she was not entitled to receive.
Mary Sue Rothfus, 69, of Rover pleaded guilty in October to one count of theft of government property before U.S. District Judge James M. Moody Jr. after she admitted to failing to notify the Social Security Administration of the death of her father in 2016 and continuing to collect his Social Security retirement checks for more than two years. She was ordered to pay $27,888.50 in restitution, which her attorney, Molly Sullivan of Little Rock, noted Rothfus had brought with her to court in the form of a cashier's check.
Under federal criminal statutes, Rothfus could have been sentenced to as much as 10 years in prison and been fined up to $250,000. However, a number of factors, including her lack of criminal history and that she confessed to the crime before it was discovered, resulted in a guideline sentencing range of six months or less in prison or one to three years probation and a potential fine of $500 to $9,500.
According to court documents, Grover Cleveland Colbert died in July 2016 but Rothfus continued to collect his Social Security retirement benefits, which were deposited into a co-owned checking account Rothfus and Colbert had opened in 2013. In December 2017, court records said, Rothfus completed and signed an account maintenance form with the Social Security Administration, updating her address and telephone number but still not advising officials of her father's death.
In November 2018, court records said Rothfus went to the Social Security Administration office in Russellville and told officials what she had done. During that time it was estimated that she had collected approximately $27,621 in Social Security retirement benefits. On Oct. 1, 2020, Rothfus agreed to waive indictment and pleaded guilty to one count of theft of government property contained in an information filed with the court.
In arguing for probation, Sullivan pointed out that Rothfus, despite doing the wrong thing initially, wound up doing the right thing by going to the Social Security Administration office and admitting her offense.
"She came forward, admitted that and in this case, Ms. Rothfus is prepared with a cashier's check to pay her restitution back," Sullivan said. "She is prepared to pay in full the amount owed to Social Security as well as the $100 special assessment. I don't believe imprisonment is justified in this case, and we are asking for probation for whatever term of years the court deems appropriate."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Liza Jane Brown did not object to the probation request and appeared to endorse it, saying that factors other than Rothfus' payment of the restitution weighed more heavily in the decision to not contest a probation sentence.
"When this case came to me, it was a very sad situation," Brown said. "Ms. Rothfus made a bad choice, she made a very bad decision. She has zero criminal history, she's never been in trouble, the guidelines ask for zero to six months in this case, and paying out the restitution has no bearing on the government's position in this case but it feels that probation is appropriate in this case if the court sees fit to sentence Ms. Rothfus to probation.
"She came forward," Brown continued. "She came to Social Security. She told them about it and started making payments back to Social Security, which is not usually what happens."
Brown also pointed out that Rothfus had created no problems for probation authorities during the time she was on supervised pretrial release.
Moody initially sentenced Rothfus to six months of probation, restitution and 60 hours of community service, but both attorneys pointed out that under the guidelines, Rothfus would have to serve a mandatory minimum probationary period of one year, which Moody then corrected.
"We'll do a year then," Moody said, "but I'm not going to change your community service."