Delaware woman to begin prison sentence in wire fraud, tax evasion – The News Journal

Connie Britell was a “self-made millionaire,” according to David Weiss, U.S. attorney for the District of Delaware, and “an example of the American dream.” 
In the mid-2000s, her career, along with her Bethany Beach business, Dovetail Interior Architecture and Design, were at their pinnacle. Busy designing award-winning homes, she hired an assistant. A client recommended Joan Donald of Ocean View for the part-time position. 
“Very nice, quiet, helpful,” Connie’s daughter, Martine Britell, said of Donald. “She was always bringing in cookies and pies.” 
But by summer 2020, Connie Britell couldn’t pay the dentist after having a tooth pulled. It wasn’t until around that time, as her mother was dying of cancer, that Martine Britell began to suspect Donald was “robbing (them) blind.”  
Donald stole over $1.1 million from Connie Britell and Dovetail, according to court documents. She pleaded guilty to wire fraud and tax evasion last year, and this month, she will begin serving a 51-month sentence.
Donald declined to comment for this article.
“Month after month for at least seven years, defendant Donald drained Dovetail’s accounts until there was nothing left,” Weiss said in a statement. “In doing so, the defendant exploited an elderly woman in declining health who had placed full faith in her. The defendant’s conduct was not only criminal, it was also cruel.” 
Mary Constance Britell (nee Grimm) grew up with seven siblings in Washington, D.C. “Connie,” as she was known, and her sisters became interested in design as kids. Three of them — Connie, Suzanne Hawkins and Mary Jo Donohoe — went on to start their own interior design businesses.  
Connie Britell started Dovetail in the 1970s, following a divorce. 
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“She just went out into the world and was going to provide for her kids and make her way,” Martine Britell said. “She was fearless.” 
By the early 2000s, Connie Britell and her sisters launched a home design book and kit called “SOS: The Professional Organizer for Your Home Designs.” They also starred in a Discovery Channel TV show called “Sisters on Style” that aired for one season, according to her daughter. 
Connie Britell spent most of her career designing and building high-end residential interiors in Washington, D.C., but built a house in the Bethany Beach area and moved there full-time around 2000. 
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“She loved what she did and it really brought her life into focus,” Martine Britell said. “It was who she was.” 
With the book and TV show, business picked up. Martine Britell moved to the area, too, and went to work for her mother as a designer. 
It was around 2005 that Connie Britell hired Donald.  
“Her job was to prepare the bills so Connie could be more organized and take care of things more efficiently,” Martine Britell said. 
When Donald came on at Dovetail, online banking was just becoming mainstream. Her aging mother was “killer with Roku and Direct TV,” Martine Britell said, but online banking wasn’t her forte. 
“For her, paperless meant that you get your bills online, not that you could have an entire business online,” Martine Britell said. “She thought she had to sign checks. She didn’t understand Joan didn’t need her signature to use online banking.” 
Donald had “total access to online banking credentials and passwords,” Weiss wrote, and Connie and Martine Britell didn’t realize they were ripe for occupational fraud.
The three women were the only employees at Dovetail. Small businesses are more likely to be targeted for occupational fraud than large corporations and other organizations, according to the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners. 
Though there were some measures in place, Dovetail was lacking in anti-fraud controls. The association’s 2020 Report to the Nations says it’s common in small businesses due to resource limitations, a lack of awareness and/or a tendency to place too much trust in employees.  
Connie Britell not only trusted Donald, she thought of her as a close friend, “almost a daughter,” Weiss said, and her messages to Donald often ended with “I love you” or “I miss you.” 
“In one exchange in October 2018, Connie texted the Defendant, who was at Disney World, that she missed her so much that she had cried that day,” Weiss wrote. “The Defendant responded that she would be home soon and that she loved Connie, too.” 
Connie Britell even Donald loaned her “tens of thousands of dollars” to purchase a home, left her “a sizable bequest” in her will and made her her second power of attorney, according to Weiss. 
In Dovetail’s case, another factor left the company vulnerable: Connie Britell was dying.  
She was diagnosed with an aggressive form of ovarian cancer in 2016 and given six months to live, according to Martine Britell. She lived for over five more years and continued to work for most of that time, but sometimes, her mental sharpness ebbed, Martine Britell said.  
“If it gave her a reason to live and fight the cancer and more time together, I was willing to live with any of the frustrations that brought,” Martine Britell said.
The discovery of Donald’s occupational fraud brought all that to an end.
“The Defendant destroyed the final years of Connie’s life. Connie died confused, financially devastated and feeling as if her life’s work had meant nothing,” Weiss wrote. “The Defendant perpetrated a yearslong, sophisticated scheme to take her employer for everything she had. In doing so, she demonstrated a disturbing level of apathy toward an elderly, cancer-ridden woman who placed total trust in the Defendant.” 
The feeling that something was off started waking Martine Britell up at night in early 2020. 
“I was working with clients and generating revenue, but Joan was telling Connie money was tight,” she said. 
Martine Britell started logging into Dovetail’s accounting software in the middle of the night. Right away, she found a discrepancy: A $500 Amazon gift card with a message that said, “Happy Birthday Joan, Love Connie.” 
When Martine Britell asked her mother about it, she said she bought Donald dinner and flowers, not a gift card. 
But Martine Britell felt guilty for thinking Donald had stolen from the business. 
“She was like a family member, and if I accused her of something, it would have repercussions on her and her family,” she said.
Martine Britell learned how to better use the accounting program over time. Donald was issued a salary, but Britell began finding her name and family members’ names connected to other financial activity, raising further suspicion.  
Then Britell said she discovered the company credit cards had far higher balances than they should have. She confronted Donald.
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“She was telling my mother this sob story that she had used a credit card that she was going to pay it all back. It was about $20,000,” Martine Britell said. “My mother said to her, ‘Look, I forgive you, you must’ve really needed this money for you to have done this but you have to make this right.’ My mother was a hippie at heart and believed in people.” 
Martine Britell said she would agree to allow Donald to repay the money, under the condition she detail exactly how much she stole and from what accounts. When she dragged her feet, Martine Britell went to see an attorney. 
The depth of the crime would later be realized at over $1 million.
“I was like, ‘Holy mother of God,’ ” Martine Britell said. 
According to Weiss, Donald paid her personal credit card bills with Dovetail’s money, while maxing out Dovetail and Connie Britell’s credit cards and racking up more than $100,000 in interest charges alone. She paid herself a “shadow salary,” issued checks to herself and funneled money to her husband in various ways, Weiss said. 
“Month after month for years, the Defendant made the deliberate choice to use Dovetail as her personal ATM,” he wrote. 
Martine Britell took her findings to police and relayed her conversations with Donald. They turned the case over to the FBI.
Donald was charged with wire fraud and five counts of tax evasion in 2021. She pleaded guilty to one count of each in April.  
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Thirty people wrote letters to the court on Connie Britell’s behalf, lamenting her gregariousness, generosity and work ethic, and urging the judge to give Donald a lengthy prison term. 
Donald also wrote a letter to the court. 
“I did discuss my theft with Connie Britell, this was my last conversation I had with Ms. Britell, and I apologized for all my wrong doings and Connie said she forgave me,” she wrote. 
This month, Donald will begin serving a 51-month sentence. She was also ordered to pay about $1.2 million in restitution to Connie Britell’s estate and about $223,000 to the IRS. 
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“She built and drew award-winning homes, she did it all, and then to have somebody torpedo all that while you’re dying? It’s especially cruel,” Martine Britell said. 
Martine Britell, now 56, moved to Florida for a design project. Connie Britell lived out her final days there, bedridden, the younger Britell said. 
“A woman who was once a force of nature died heartbroken, anxious about money, ashamed she had been duped, afraid for her family and joyless,” Weiss wrote. 
As the now-owner of Dovetail, Martine Britell is facing all the debt Donald incurred. She and Weiss said the company will likely go into bankruptcy.  
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“The next five to seven years of my life will be spent with lawyers, accountants and forensic accountants facing bankruptcy and cleaning up the financial fallout from (Donald’s) ruination of our lives and business,” Martine Britell wrote in a letter to the court. 
Britell is currently living in “a room in a barn with no indoor plumbing,” but she is determined not to let her life or mother’s success be overshadowed. 
“Connie wasn’t a victim, she was a target,” Martine Britell said. “Financial fraudsters only go after people who achieve.” 


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