SBI probes embezzlement allegations at Macon County Board of Elections
By Holly Kays & Becky Johnson • Staff writers
An embezzlement investigation at the Macon County Board of Elections locked down the office for nearly a week between Jan. 17 and Jan. 23, but business is far from returning to usual.
The State Bureau of Investigation is continuing to follow a paper trail of fraudulent invoices and forged checks, according to court documents. Board of Elections Director Kimberley Bishop has been placed on paid investigative leave — at least for now. However, the election board has called an emergency meeting Thursday (Jan. 30) to discuss personnel issues.
Court documents indicate that Bishop is the subject of an investigation for possibly forging signatures on invoices, forging check endorsements, fraudulently billing the county and paying for contracted work that was not done or was not necessary.
Over a seven-month period, Bishop billed the county for about $50,000 of work supposedly performed by outside contractors. The money was spread out over 28 checks the county cut to a handful of these people, based on invoices Bishop had submitted to the county.
However, court records and interviews indicated that the work Bishop was billing the county for was, in fact, fabricated. Further, she was endorsing and depositing the checks made out to the contractors herself, according to a search warrant.
In many cases, the invoices Bishop submitted to the county and the checks to contractors that she deposited had a second signature alongside her own. But the people whose signature supposedly appeared on the invoices and checks said the signatures weren’t theirs, according to interviews and court documents.
Furthermore, checks to one of the outside contractors were signed using the wrong spelling of that individual’s name in eight of the nine checks made out to her.
How it started
It’s an uproar that began quietly when County Manager Derek Roland received a tip about questionable business practices and records irregularities at the Board of Election’s office.
That revelation prompted an after-hours rendezvous of key county staff at the election office on Thursday night, Jan. 16, where they sized up the severity of the situation and hashed out what to do next.
Joining Roland at the night-time meeting were Luke Bateman, chairman of the Board of Elections, and Robert Holland, county sheriff. County Attorney Chester Jones was also notified. Based on what he found there, Holland decided to put new locks on the doors “until further notice,” locking employees out of the building.
The next day, Holland and District Attorney Mike Bonfoey requested an investigation by the SBI.
SBI investigators arrived Jan. 21 and met with Lori Hall, the county’s finance director.
According to the search warrant issued the next day, “a trustworthy source” told Roland and Mike Decker, the human resources director, that “money was being paid out to individual people not doing work.”
Hall began to look through the records and found 28 “suspicious” checks and check requests from the Board of Elections, the search warrant said.
The checks, the first of which was written in June 2013, totaled more than $50,000, according to the search warrant. A check request, similar to an invoice, is submitted to the county finance office, which then cuts the actual check. Bishop’s check requests were to be made out to various people who were supposedly doing contracted work for the election office, including: Sonya Stevens, Misty Henry or Misty Bryson, Kathy Holland and Cassady Ledford.
Technically, Bishop could not submit such invoices to the county on her own. She was supposed to get a second signature from the Election Board Chairman, Luke Bateman.
While Bateman’s name appeared as the signature on 10 of the check requests, Bateman said he never saw the forms before the investigation began.
“I did not,” he said when asked if he signed the forms. “They were never approved by me or authorized by me.”
The signature of another Election Board member, Sara Waldroop, supposedly appears on five more the check requests. But she told investigators that she had never seen any of the check requests before and did not know any of the people to whom the checks had been written, according to the search warrant.
Investigators compared Bateman’s and Waldroop’s actual signatures with the ones on the check requests and noted “variations,” according to the search warrant.
The remaining 14 check requests were not signed by any board members.
Abnormal business practices
Bateman said the number and amounts of the payments aren’t consistent with how the Board of Elections typically does business. The Board of Elections simply doesn’t make widespread use of outside contractors, Bateman said, especially during a quiet election year.
The 2013-14 budget does contain a line item for contracted services, but it only allots $8,000. So far this year, the Board of Elections had spent $8,934 in that category.
The check requests Bishop submitted to the county apparently did not include a proper explanation of the work to be done, and they cumulatively totaled about one-fifth of the board’s total 2013-14 budget of $256,000.
Examples of typical contract work, Bateman said, include hiring someone to pick up, deliver and return ballot boxes or paying a technician to test the voting machines before election day.
“Those are specific tasks pertaining to a specific event,” he said.
Typically, the election board would have to authorize the use of outside contractors. But in these instances, that never happened.
Bateman said the board never voted to contract with Stevens, Henry/Bryson, Holland or Ledford.
According to the search warrant, Ledford told investigators that she did do some work for the Board of Elections — about 30 or 40 hours on weekends and after hours since July 2013 — but Bateman said the board never authorized her employment.
In fact, according to the search warrant, Bateman has not signed any check requests since his appointment as chairman in July 2013.
And while Ledford said she did receive payment for her work, the $2,000 cash she told investigators Bishop gave her does not approach the $14,296 value of the checks written to her, and Bateman said the board never authorized her to do the work.
“I’ve seen that statement, but our board has not authorized [Ledford] as a vendor,” he said of Ledford’s interview with investigators.
A signature bearing Ledford’s name appeared on all nine of the checks written in her name, but on eight of them, her first name was spelled “Cassidy,” rather than its correct spelling of “Cassady.”
The Board of Elections reopened on Jan. 23, but while two of its three paid employees returned to work, Bishop was placed on paid investigatory leave at her full salary of $42,000. She has served as director since Feb. 2002, about one year after being hired as an administrative staff assistant in February 2001. Messages requesting comment were left at Bishop’s home.
At its upcoming meeting, the Board of Elections will discuss its financial needs for the rest of the year and the hiring of temporary employees until the new fiscal year begins. As of press time, the Board of Elections has not determined the outcome of Bishop’s employment situation, but regardless of what happens, the office will become a busier place when election filing begins Feb. 10. The investigation is ongoing and no charges have been filed.