State Bureau of Investigation detectives are going back ten years, examining many thousands of documents, in their probe of potential financial crimes in the Wake County Register of Deeds office, SBI officials and the county district attorney said Monday.
This timeframe dramatically widens the scope of the investigation, which came to public attention when District Attorney Lorrin Freeman and county manager Jim Hartmann held a press conference March 31
to announce an SBI criminal probe into possible financial irregularities in the Register of Deeds office.
“We’re trying to follow the trail back to see if we can find when this started, and we are at a ten-year scope,” Freeman said Monday.
At the same March press conference, Freeman and Hartmann announced that Register of Deeds Laura Riddick, in office since 1996, had resigned her post because of poor health. Hartmann said the financial irregularities at the office had taken place during a period of a year or perhaps longer, citing January and February as the “material time.”
The disclosures came after a former employee of the Register of Deeds office spoke Monday at a Wake County Board of Commissioners meeting, stating that he had reported potential malfeasance in the department and had been forced to resign. Darryl Black, a former deputy director of the office, said he told his supervisors about discrepancies in transactions there eighteen months before the apparent missing funds came to light. Before raising taxes, Black suggested, commissioners should have an outside performance audit conducted of the Register of Deeds office.
Freeman said that Black has had several interviews with the SBI.
“Any information that Mr. Black has about money being taken from the Register of Deeds, I would hope that he has disclosed that in any of the conversations he’s had with the SBI,” Freeman said. “We welcome any information Mr. Black has to offer.”
The Register of Deeds office handles about $14 million annually in fees and other payments. Apparently, money that was unaccounted for came from cash transactions at the office. Riddick and other employees of the office have been cooperating with the investigation, officials said.
“We continue to say, as I did from the beginning, that Ms. Riddick is certainly one of a number of people that was involved in the chain, and as a result has not been excluded,” Freeman said.
Among other points, Black suggested that the Board of Commissioners bring in an independent auditor to examine records at the Register of Deeds office. Freeman said that Wake County has already called one in.
SBI spokeswoman Patty McQuillan said Monday that much work remains to be done on the Register of Deeds case.
“There are literally thousands of transactions that are being reviewed, ten years’ worth, at the district attorney’s request,” McQuillan said. "The SBI requested that the internal auditors for Wake County review the financial records, which they are doing right now."
Neither Black nor investigators explained how the theft of money from a public office could continue for such a long period. The idea that the investigation needed to reach back much deeper in the past came about as SBI and Wake County staff members tried to determine the scope of any embezzlement.
“It’s not unusual for us in these cases to look at five- or ten-year scope,” Freeman said. “We look at when there was first a loss. In terms of a projected timeline, I am hopeful by the end of this summer to move forward with wrapping up the investigation.”
Neither official estimated in March the amount of money that could have been taken. They simply called it a “substantial amount.”