COMANCHE COUNTY, Ok (KSWO) - LAWTON, OK (KSWO) - Former Oklahoma Beef Council accountant, Melissa Morton, will spend almost five years in prison after pleading guilty to embezzling over $2 million from the organization. One local beef producer talked about how this affects farmers and ranchers across the state.
For over 40 years, the Oklahoma Beef Council has worked to increase the demand for beef and educate consumers on the product. The council is funded through the Beef Checkoff Program. The federally mandated program requires beef producers to pay $1 per head sold to support those efforts.
When news broke of Melissa Morton's embezzling, trust within the ranching community was broken.
"This greatly affects cattle producers as this is hard earned dollars that producers pay to promote their products," said Shari Holloway, President of the Tri-County Cattlemen's Association.
Holloway says she feels violated by the situation, but believes Morton's 57 month sentence and order to pay restitution was fair.
She says Morton worked for the Oklahoma Beef Council since 1995 and her guilty plea came as a surprise.
"Ms. Morton was a trusted employee by the council for years," said Holloway. "I don't know her personally, but I know many people that do. It was a surprising situation."
Moving forward, Holloway says the council is taking steps to restore its name, hiring an outside accounting firm to ensure a situation like this won't happen again.
"I think we're headed in the right direction to regain that faith that beef producers have in the Oklahoma Beef Council," said Holloway.
And while ranchers took a hit, it doesn't slow down day-to-day operations.
"We've got a lot of other issues at hand," said Holloway. "We're dealing with a drought, we don't have wheat to graze our cattle on, so we must move forward and deal with the other pending issues. We're a perseverant bunch and we'll make it."
The Oklahoma Beef Council has also implemented a five-step accounting and financial review process along with an audit risk committee.
As for Morton, she'll serve her time, and pay $2.3 million, about $240,000 of which, has already been paid.