Stone County leaders address embezzlement scam - WLOX.com - The News for South Mississippi

Stone County leaders address embezzlement scam

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WIGGINS, MS (WLOX) -

The Stone County Economic Development Partnership held a public meeting Monday night at the Wiggins Depot to discuss the details of last year's infamous embezzlement scam and what's next for the partnership.

"We are working with the Sheriffs Department and the state auditor. We have an ongoing investigation," Stone County Economic Development Partnership Chairperson Laura Owen said. "We have done a list of all the checks that were fraudulent, presented them to the banks. We have done several new things as far as internal controls and we will do several more things in the years to come."

Back in December, it was discovered that the County's Executive Secretary, Tina Owens Gillespie, had allegedly embezzled some $300,000 from the county. The scam is believed to have gone on for years. In fact, there were about 30 forged checks written in 2010 alone. The meeting was a chance to get everyone up to speed on the situation while also shedding light on new findings.

"The purpose of this meeting was to get the groups together to discuss what had happened here. As a board, we want to be open to the public, we want to be transparent. We want people to know what's going on with us and where we stand," Owen said.

During the meeting, many details of the case were revealed. As the board recently learned, in 2010 Gillespie allegedly manipulated the Peach Tree Accounting program to steal from the EDP. Investigators said she would make checks out to herself or in petty cash. She would then go back and change the payee name on the general ledger. Ultimately, the payee name on the check, and the name on the general ledger were different. However, the amounts were the same.

Owen told the crowd it's believed Gillespie wrote two or three checks a month. Most of the amounts are said to have been less than $1,000 and the auditor didn't notice the different names. She said the EDP receiving a clean audit report in 2009 and 2010 was "devastating to the EDP."

Most of the fraudulent checks were written at the beginning or the end of the month, so as to avoid anyone noticing checks out of sequence. Initially, they said, Tina Owens Gillespie also found ways to avoid being detected by auditors and through financial statements.

"Internal controls in our EDP office were not strong. We had the same person writing checks, opening the bank statements, and doing the financial statements," Owens said. "We possibly could have discovered the fraud if we did these four steps each month: If we had all the board members in the room at the same time, especially the check signers. We have to have all the members review the financial statements each month. All members review the bank statements, and all members review copies of all signed checks that clear the bank. If any one of these is missing, fraud can happen."

The situation has served as a lesson for the EDP. The focus for 2013 is to address the past, but move forward in a positive way.

"We're going forward. We're moving on. This is a brand new year and we got a new start. I think things can look good here in Stone County," Owen said.

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