Craig C. Snee of Jackson Township, Ohio has been found guilty of workers’ compensation fraud. Snee operates Earth ’n Wood Products, a mulching company based several locations in the Akron, Ohio area. Earth ’n Wood also sells stone, topsoil, and landscaping products in addition to collecting yard waste.
Michael Bickis, the Assistant Stark County Prosecutor, said that Snee misclassified employees to reduce his workers’ compensation premiums and also underreported Earth ’n Wood’s payroll to the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation. The Stark County Prosecutor’s Office estimates Snee owes approximately $350,000 to the bureau.
The misclassified employees included semitruck drivers who were listed as office workers. Defense attorney Anthony Koukoutas explained that Snee had thought it was possible to classify truck drivers as office workers as they were required to fill out logs for the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Bickis countered, asking the jury: “I have to ask you, honestly, does that pass the smell test?”
Earth ’n Wood’s annual gross revenue exceeds $6 million. On eight occasions, said Bickis, Snee gave the Bureau of Worker’s Compensation lower figures than the ones on “his own spreadsheets.” Snee offered no explanation as to the cause of the discrepancy, said Bickis.
Koukoutas told the court that Snee is a small business owner who had been working hard to meet the pressures of both making payroll and ensuring the company stayed open. “There’s that pressure that’s on you,” said Koukoutas, “the pressure to find a way.” According to Koukoutas, Snee was trying his best in almost impossible circumstances: his workers’ compensation premiums were shooting up.
Koukoutas stressed that Snee did not gain personally either from the misclassifications or the underreported payroll. “It’s really easy to cast stones,” he said, talking about the difficulties faced by small business owners who need to work long hours to keep their businesses afloat.
“What should he have done instead?” Koukoutas challenged the jury. “I guess he should have just shut the company down or laid off employees.” If Earth ’n Wood had been a larger company, it would have been easier to shift production to another country, for example.
He “was not trying to defraud anybody,” said Koukoutas. “He was trying to keep people employed.” The fraud allegations cover the time from 2011 to 2015.
Before the jury retired, Bickis reminded them it was their duty to base their deliberations on the law and the facts presented in the trial. “You may be sympathetic to his reason for breaking the law, but that has no place in your deliberations,” he said.
The jury deliberated for two hours before finding Snee guilty of a fourth-degree felony. The jurors found that the value of Snee’s unpaid assessments and workers’ compensation premiums was below $150,000. This reduced the felony from third degree to fourth degree.
As Snee has no prior criminal record and since this was a nonviolent offense, he will not be sentenced to prison time. However, he may be sentenced to probation or to jail time—that is, to a shorter sentence in a local secure facility rather than a penitentiary—or to some combination of both.
A pre-sentence investigation is currently underway to aid Judge Chryssa Hartnett in her sentencing decision. Snee will be sentenced on October 17.
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