Court employee under investigation for embezzlement | RecordCourier.com

Court employee under investigation for embezzlement

by Christy Chalmers and Sheila Gardner

An East Fork Justice Court clerk has been put on leave without pay while investigators check allegations she may have embezzled fine and bail money paid to the court.

Douglas County District Attorney Scott Doyle confirmed the investigation Tuesday, almost four years to the day after a grand jury report blasted the court’s fee collection system.

Doyle said investigators do not know how much money may be involved and declined to say whether criminal charges would be filed.

“At this point, it would be premature for me to speculate on whether charges are warranted,” he said. “The initial concern was discovered by court personnel and referred to us a little over a week ago.”

Doyle did not name the employee, but said she has worked in the justice court office for about two years.

Investigators from the Sheriff’s Office and Doyle’s office are working on the case.

Doyle said the investigation is expected to last at least through the week and will likely involve both external and internal audits. He said the employee was initially put on paid leave when the investigation started, but that status was changed to unpaid leave on Monday.

The worker apparently hasn’t talked to investigators, but Doyle said they contacted her lawyer about possible discussions.

The East Fork Justice Court, one of two justice courts in Douglas County, has six clerks. Their duties involve collecting and recording payments for fines, bail and other court-ordered fees.

The fee collection system was targeted in a 1994 grand jury report that said it was inefficient. The report also criticized then-Justice of the Peace Doug Struthers, saying he was lax in enforcing collection of the fines he imposed.

Current Justice of the Peace Jim EnEarl began aggressively collecting fines when he took office in 1995, and a computer-aided case management system that includes software to track court payments was subsequently installed.

EnEarl, who oversees the justice court clerks, said the court office has “safeguards” provided by the state Administrative Office of Courts, located in Carson City.

“They have procedures they want all courts in the state to follow as far as the handling of money,” he said Tuesday. “They are safeguards to insure that collections of fines are handled properly. The last audit indicates that we were in compliance with the things we need to be in compliance with. I believe the last audit through the county auditor’s office was fine, too.”

Douglas County Comptroller Claudette Springmeyer said the justice courts have not recently been audited. The county’s external auditor, Kafoury Armstrong, gave the county a clean bill of health in its most recent report, which covered the 1996-97 fiscal year. The 1997-98 year ended Tuesday.

Those audits focus on different departments and functions each year, but “it’s not an audit of every department,” Springmeyer said. “They do a sampling and if they see anything that warrants further research, that’s what they do.”

The county’s internal audits have been reduced because of budget constraints.

The court investigation is the fourth since 1996 involving a public worker. Three previous cases have resulted in plea bargains that spared the defendants jail time.

In 1996, Gardnerville resident Sandra Pawliszyn was arrested after investigators found boxes of financial records and other property belonging to Scarselli Elementary School in her garage. She pleaded guilty to fraud, paid $25,000 in restitution and was put on probation.

In May 1997, Dave Campbell, the former manager of the Indian Hills General improvement District, pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor fraud counts. He was arrested for investigation of embezzlement and other crimes in February after investigators found an air conditioning unit, a shed and other property at his home that was paid for with district money.

In December 1997, the county’s former facilities operations supervisor, Ron Chamness, pleaded guilty to violating the public trust by converting more than $1,000 worth of county-owned tools to his own use. Investigators recovered most of the property.

The Record-Courier E-mail: rc@tahoe.com

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