Collaboration in Civic Spheres

Report: county auditors, treasurers group scammed for $73K

by Matt Rosenberg March 28th, 2012

A fraud report just issued by the Washington State Auditor’s office says the former financial operations manager of the Washington Association of County Officials (WACO) embezzled more than $73,000 from the group by writing checks to herself and doctoring records, but was under no real oversight to begin with. WACO documents and public records show that the former finance manager’s name is Robin A. Chase, 44, of Olympia. Thurston County Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Mark Thompson told Public Data Ferret he will have an announcement this Friday March 30 on whether criminal charges will be filed against Chase. The case was referred to that office in December for consideration of first degree theft and forgery charges. Thompson said he’d been waiting for the auditor’s report to be issued before deciding what to do.

(UPDATE, 4/3/12: In Thurston County Superior Court documents filed today, Robin Ann Chase is charged with with first degree theft, a Class B felony. The charging papers say she waived her Miranda rights and provided a taped admission to Olympia Police she diverted 59 WACO checks totaling $73,086 into her personal account at a credit union. Also according to the documents, Chase “said she stole the money because she was going through chemotherapy for her cancer, because she was on prescription painkillers, and because there was significant stress going on in her family.” Arraignment is April 17 at 10 a.m.)

Watchdogs get snookered
WACO’s membership is made up of county auditors, coroners, medical examiners, prosecutors, sheriffs, clerks and treasurers; the organization is funded by a base fee of $2,000 from each member county plus an additional assessment of public monies based on county population size. WACO’s non-profit 1099 form for 2010 shows revenues of more than $800,000. A separate sister association called the Washington State Association of Counties represents county commissioners and council members from across the state.

Finance manager wrote checks to herself
The fraud report from the office of Washington State Auditor Brian Sonntag says it received a tip-off in July 2011 from new WACO Executive Director James McMahan, formerly the deputy executive director. It was about apparent financial irregularities he had discovered. The auditor’s office initially found Chase had misappropriated $4,957 by making five checks out to herself, depositing or cashing them and then changing the vendor name or removing all notations on the expenditures from the association’s records. All five checks had McMahan’s signature but he said those were forged. The auditor’s office probed five years back and found Chase had misappropriated a total of $67,086 of public monies paid by Washington counties to WACO, by writing checks to herself, endorsing them and depositing them in her personal account. That amount included the first $4,957 identified.

“Almost no oversight”
The auditor’s fraud report also found Chase was under no supervision whatsoever by now-retired WACO Executive Director Debbie Wilke, who got a fond send-off in WACO’s June, 2011 newsletter. Chase had full and sole control of WACO’s finances “with almost no oversight or independent review” and Wilke signed blank checks at her request “with no review of the supporting documentation.”

Finance manager also said to have stolen from scholarship fund
According to the report, Chase also misappropriated another $6,000 from WACO’s scholarship fund, drawn from individual personal contributions by WACO members at events. No receipts were issued and no records kept of the fund’s revenues, leaving the amounts collected unknown.

WACO “shocked and saddened;” safeguards now in place
WACO replied in the auditor’s fraud report that it was “shocked and saddened” at the apparent thefts by Chase, and it is now contracting with a CPA to regularly review financial operations. A top officer of WACO, serving as its treasurer, is Snohomish County Auditor Carolyn Weikel. In an interview with Public Data Ferret, she said of the revelations about Chase, “it is a terrible, terrible, terrible thing to have happen. If people had followed policies and procedures” of the organization that did exist at the time, “it most likely would not have happened. Now, multiple hands and eyes are reviewing all transactions and documents.”

Public Data Ferret is a news knowledge base program of the Seattle-based 501c3 public charity, Public Eye Northwest. Ferret In The News; Donate.

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