FORT WORTH -- A former court reporter who worked for years in the Tarrant County Justice Center pleaded guilty to forgery Thursday morning for repeatedly signing a judge’s name on invoices and overbilling the county at least $26,000.
In exchange for her guilty plea and for voluntarily giving up her court reporter’s license, Barbara Chapman, 52, was sentenced to five years of deferred adjudication probation. Deferred adjudication means if Chapman completes the terms of her probation, there will be no finding of guilt and a conviction will not appear on her record.
Chapman has already repaid the county $11,000 and must pay back another $15,788.50 as a condition of her probation, officials said.
"All in all, we didn't want her to be a court reporter, but she is not the type of person that should go to the penitentiary," said prosecutor Joe Shannon, chief of the economic crimes unit of the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office. "I said I will recommend deferred if she voluntarily gives up her court reporter’s certificate. When someone is holding an office of public integrity and they violate that trust, they cough up their license. That is protecting the public. We have to maintain the integrity of our court system."
Chapman's defense attorney, Navid Alband, said Chapman is so well liked and trusted that he and attorney Bill Lane agreed to represent her for free.
"We know what kind of person she is and she deserves that type of representation," Alband said. "Most any other attorney in this courthouse would have done the same for her."
Alband said that Chapman was "confused" about what she could do and that she was never trying to get additional money by signing state district Judge Wayne Salvant's name on invoices. In fact, Alband said, they are working to show, through receipts and other documents, that she doesn't owe $15,000 in restitution.
"That is all going to be justified," Alband said. "What she has done is what she was supposed to do and she hasn't overbilled for it. We don’t have that at our disposal right now but, in time, we anticipate bringing that restitution amount to a number close to zero, providing the proof that she has done the work that she requested fees for."
Officials said the fraud came to light on Aug. 28, 2006, when an employee with the county auditor's office brought state district Judge Wayne Salvant an invoice that Chapman had submitted for $3,572 for payment for her work on defendant Edward Busby’s death penalty trial. At the time, Chapman had been the court reporter in Salvant’s court for 10 years.
The judge looked at the invoice and told the auditor that was not his signature. According to a district attorney's report, Salvant then called Chapman, who was on vacation, and asked whether she had forged his name on an invoice.
She stated that she did not, but agreed to come to the office to discuss the matter, the report said.
Later that afternoon, Salvant, accompanied by a sergeant with the Tarrant County Sheriff's Office, suspended Chapman and requested that she surrender her keys to the office.
The following morning, at Salvant's request, an official with the auditor's office pulled other invoices Chapman had submitted and learned that numerous invoices had Salvant's forged signature.
At that point, the judge contacted the district attorney's office, which launched an investigation.
Prosecutor Shannon said that the investigation revealed that, over a two-year period, Chapman repeatedly forged Salvant's signature and overbilled the county on numerous cases, including overbilling $10,700 on the Busby case. Shannon said she also underbilled the county on some cases and some invoices were correct.
At one point, Shannon said, Chapman sent a letter to the auditor's office, trying to explain why her billing was messed up and sent a check for more than $11,000.
Salvant said Thursday that he was hearbroken over the turn of events.
"I am extremely sad and disappointed to discover someone like Barbara, who was a longtime employee and friend, to have forged my name and sent them directly to the TC auditor," he said. "I believe she violated the trust I placed in her. It left me no choice but to terminate her employment at that time. The integrity of our judicial system and county procedures must be maintained at all costs. ...No one is above the law and everyone is accountable for their actions."