Editorial: Public, county leaders must stop the theft
September 2, 2014
Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.
Garfield County, specifically the Clerk and Recorders Office, has been ripped off by two employees over multiple years since 2009, if the latest allegations are correct.
That's shameful, but the big question is what we will do about it. "We" because that's our money that's being stolen. "We" because the public must demand accountability and a transparent action plan from our county elected officials and employees.
It's an axiom of politics that people get the government they deserve, so if county residents don't demand change, we won't get it.
The responsibility going forward falls not only on Clerk and Recorder Jean Alberico, but on all county officials, including the commissioners, to ensure that the risk of further theft is minimized.
Most readers know the background:
In the first case to be exposed, Brenda Caywood stole about $16,000 in 2010 and 2011 by pocketing tax overpayments and creating bogus transactions. She was sentenced to two years' probation, community service, and $19,422.20 in restitution — the estimated theft plus 8 percent interest.
After the Caywood theft, Alberico told the PI's John Stroud, she put in place what she believed to be "double, even triple adequate controls."
But Robin McMillan, 51, of Rifle, was arrested Aug. 5 and told police she'd been taking money from the office since 2009. If the charges are true, while helping investigate Caywood she already was stealing much, much more. A preliminary investigation indicated she took $194,603.50 in 2013 and 2014 alone, with the prior years' losses still being tallied.
She told police it was easy — a damning comment about county safeguards.
Clearly more must be done.
DA Sherry Caloia, who hates embezzling, complained to Stroud that embezzlers too seldom go to prison. These white-collar criminals often have no prior record, so judges tend to give them another chance. And they can't make restitution if they are in prison. But, Caloia pointed out, restitution payments can be reduced to as little as $15 to $25 per month.
"It's very upsetting, because unless these cases are treated very harshly the deterrent effect is not there," she said.
So let's all work to create a deterrent.
• Let's not be secretive about any aspect of this sort of activity. Private businesses that get ripped off must overcome embarrassment and report it. Otherwise, the crook can go to work somewhere else and steal more.
• Government, which works for us using our money, must be open about its findings and actions. The county is conducting a review of procedures. When that is complete, publicize the steps being taken to check employees' work. This can be done without tipping crooks off on how to beat the system. They seem to be pretty clever in trying to find gaps anyway. Let them know they are being watched. Carefully.
• Provide a full accounting of exactly how much McMillan is suspected of taking. We have been provided an estimate for only two of the five years of the alleged theft. It's insured, but it's our money.
• Don't be skinflints about audits. Caloia told Stroud that tighter audits will be expensive, but the debt-free county has enough money to tighten up its procedures.
None of this should take media "prying." Our public officials, elected to watch out for our interests and paid with our money, should be happily proactive about sharing information about this case (and others) and what they are doing about it.
All county elected officials should stand together and make a public statement about the steps they will take to prevent theft and what will happen to employees caught stealing.
In explaining how this could have happened, Alberico and others told Stroud that embezzlers are just wily. Several cases of embezzling public money have cropped up in the region.
"There always seem to be ways around anything you set up to prevent it, especially when there is a lot of money that passes through," longtime county Treasurer Georgia Chamberlain said.
Alberico said, "You can't watch everything, and you have to trust people."
In an office of 23 FTEs, you can watch pretty closely. And must.
This is unpleasant, uncomfortable stuff at an interpersonal level in a relatively small workplace. It will require a shift in attitude among county managers. It will require less trust of even seemingly loyal employees and more spending for tighter auditing.
We have learned — twice now — that trusting and hoping for the best isn't working out so well in the 21st century, even in small towns.