A woman who ran the now-shuttered Bull Branch restaurant in downtown Lynchburg was ordered Wednesday to pay more than $5,000 in restitution for years of unpaid meals taxes.
Anne “Scott” Cardwell, 60, of Lynchburg, was found guilty of five counts of embezzlement in a December 2019 trial. Although she was convicted of three felony counts and two misdemeanor counts, two of the felony counts were dropped to misdemeanors at her sentencing hearing in Lynchburg Circuit Court.
That was because her attorney, Chuck Felmlee, presented evidence she’d written off checks in the amount of taxes she owed the city, plus a 10% late fee. He introduced records from her bank as evidence showing she paid those amounts after the taxes were due, and asked Lynchburg Circuit Court Judge F. Patrick Yeatts to downgrade her felony convictions related to those instances.
Cardwell opened Bull Branch in August 2001, when downtown Lynchburg still was a “ghost town,” she told the court in a prepared statement. Her business faced a series of hurdles, between the September 11 attacks just weeks after she opened it, the economic recession and personal tragedies.
She said she missed her first tax payment about six months after opening and now realized she should’ve closed Bull Branch at that point, but persisted at the insistence of patrons, friends and city officials whom she didn’t name.
Cardwell served a number of different roles at the restaurant and entered into a payment plan with the city for unpaid taxes in May 2011, she said. Bull Branch struggled from then until she eventually closed it in 2013, but Cardwell said she never missed a tax payment in that time and paid several thousands more to cover back taxes.
In 2014, she said city officials stopped contacting her about the payments and she assumed the issue was over.
Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Mike Pflieger asked the court Wednesday to impose restitution of more than $127,000, whether as part of a criminal proceeding or a civil arrangement. He said city officials worked “ad nauseam” with Cardwell to set things right after seeing evidence she was in arrears starting in 2009, finally deciding in 2018 to approach prosecutors about a criminal case.
“This type of case is an ongoing struggle in the city,” he said, referring to other restaurants and businesses in town with slim operating margins.
Felmlee pointed out to the court that banks destroy certain financial records — including ones related to Cardwell’s payments — after a span of seven years, meaning his client couldn’t access records from the timeframe of her first charges even if she tried to access them immediately after being indicted.
Yeatts said the case was the result of Cardwell’s love for the business clouding her good judgment when considering closing a business that wasn’t financially feasible. He said he didn’t see any sense in imposing jail time — which was recommended in sentencing guidelines drawn up for Cardwell — in the interest of deterring others from violating the law in the same way.
Yeatts added the convictions themselves, alongside restitution, were punishment enough. He imposed an entirely suspended sentence on Cardwell, six months of supervised probation and $5,377 in criminal restitution that she was to pay Wednesday.
He said he hadn’t seen enough evidence to set a higher, definite dollar amount of restitution and directed any remaining money be requested or settled in a civil matter.