Wake County officials made clear their disappointment Monday about the loss of $2.3 million—perhaps more—from the Register of Deeds office. But they rejected the idea that responsibility should rest on any person or agency beyond the as-yet-unnamed thief.
More than an hour of questioning of county finance officials and an outside auditor elicited a number of reasons for the theft, including the once-bright reputation of former Register of Deeds Laura Riddick.
"I can clearly understand how something like this could have easily been missed, given the professionalism of the office that it was coming from," said commission chairman Sig Hutchinson. "I'm cool with the question of, Could it have been caught? The answer is, I don't think it could have been caught."
Commissioner John Burns said it's inappropriate to point a finger at anyone. "There can only be one place that the blame should be cast, and that would be the person who decided to steal public money," he said.
In the end, commissioners signed a memorandum of understanding with the Register of Deeds office giving the county the right to audit it—a right already explicit in state law. In other words, the agreement changes nothing about the relationship between the two bodies.
During Riddick's tenure in the elected post, from 1996 until March 2017, at least $2.3 million went missing from money paid in cash for marriage licenses and other vital records. The actual amount missing hasn't been determined because records either don't exist or were kept in a different system before 2008. Johnna Rogers, Wake County's deputy county manager, said Monday it's a "possibility" there are more funds unaccounted for.
The apparent amount taken each year grew from 2008, the first year for which there are records in the system, Rogers said.
Riddick stepped down earlier this year, citing bad health, and has declined to answer questions from the INDY. Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman, along with the State Bureau of Investigation, is pursuing a criminal investigation in the case, which could result in indictments. Riddick, among those being investigated, is cooperating with the probe, Freeman said.
Earlier this year, Freeman said the process could be concluded this month. Now she says that investigators are still making progress, so there's no definite end date. The district attorney says the probe might obtain records predating 2008.
The county's internal auditor, John Stephenson, called the embezzlement the worst he had ever seen. The office had an average daily cash collection of between $2,200 and $3,200, of which nearly half often didn't make it into the books, he said.
While commissioners decline to pass blame, they had plenty of questions about the shortfalls in governance that led to the missing money.
"What exactly do I tell the public and my constituents when they ask what took so long?" Commissioner Jessica Holmes asked. "What exactly I am supposed to tell them?"
The answers to that question can be grouped in several rough categories.
One is the tradition—not supported by state law—that elected county officers run their own shops, free from county oversight.
"You've got a separately elected official who has full autonomy in that office," Rogers explained.
Rogers and finance director Susan McCullen agreed that state statutes give county staffers the right to audit any county agency that handles cash. But for the last several years, the county declined to do so. While Stephenson audited other departments, he didn't do so for the Register of Deeds. That decision was based on Riddick's reputation for running a tight, efficient operation.
"Just from our regular interactions with her and how she was so customer-focused, there just wasn't any indication that she wasn't at the top of her profession in providing service," Rogers said.
But why didn't red flags go up, board members asked, when 40 to 50 percent of cash was walking out the door every day?
"Because this had been going on for so long, there wasn't anything to show there was a dip," Rogers said.
Partisan politics, or the desire to avoid them, also played a role. Both Riddick and Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison are Republicans, while the Board of Commissioners has no GOP members. The commissioners were worried about how initiating such inquiries would look.
"If the first thing we did was to say that we were going to investigate the two county departments run by Republicans, the headlines would have been entirely different," Burns said.
The slow pace of government helped prevent discovery of the thefts. Proposals to allow Register of Deeds customers to use credit and debit cards—which Riddick suggested—have been in the works for years. Those changes are expected to go online in December.
"This is not as easy as going out and buying a little machine and sticking it on your phone," outgoing county manager Jim Hartmann said, showing a rare touch of impatience.
In addition, Stephenson's small staff was busy with other projects, including a Medicaid investigation that saved the county $2.2 million. And in the grand scheme, $2.3 million over several years in an annual budget of more than a billion dollars is considered a relatively small amount.