Early Chances to Catch Missing Register of Deeds Cash Appeared in County's Own Budget Documents | News

Early Chances to Catch Missing Register of Deeds Cash Appeared in County's Own Budget Documents

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Starting in 2014, the Wake County Register of Deeds office recommended in four separate annual budgets that the agency move to accepting credit and debit cards instead of cash for fees.

On March 31, improper handling of cash at the office emerged at the center of a
criminal investigation announced by Wake officials. The recommendation
even appeared after that announcement, in the most recent budget, approved June
19 by the Wake County Board of Commissioners.

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Had the move away from cash happened in 2015, Wake County taxpayers could have saved some, if not all, of the $608,788.98 that had disappeared between 2015 and early this year.

Figures since released by the county show that a total of $2.3 million has gone missing from the office since 2008. This week, officials say the move to credit cards won't happen until December, in what appears to be a case of shutting the barn door after million-dollar horses get away.

"Implementing electronic payments takes time and thorough planning," county spokeswoman Dara Demi says in a statement. "To do so properly, the county first develops processes for each collection site, trains its staff, sets the fee structures and establishes the appropriate oversight before it can start accepting credit and debit cards.”

Another apparent organizational shortfall was also fixed only after the scandal emerged: Wake County had no formal policy on fraud, waste and abuse, County Manager Jim Hartmann said in an August report to board members.

"Having such a policy is considered a best practice," Hartmann wrote.

Finance director Susan McCullen and internal auditor John Stephenson submitted a draft fraud and abuse policy to Hartmann and other department heads on June 15. It was adopted effective Aug. 1.

Former Register of Deeds Laura Riddick, who retired from her elective post within days of announcement of the criminal probe, has consistently refused to answer the INDY's questions, including those posed in an email today.

Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman and Hartmann jointly announced the probe and Riddick's resignation. Freeman has said that Riddick, who had held the office since 1996, is under investigation along with several other employees of the office. In a March statement, Riddick said her departure stemmed from serious health problems.

The recommendations to move toward cash payment were included in a section of projected needs that came from Riddick's office.

"The 'Horizon Issues' section of the Register of Deeds Office entry in the adopted budget book was drafted annually by the Register of Deeds Office and provided to the Office of Budget and Management Services for inclusion," Demi said.

Several Wake departments had already made the switch to cash .

The county has been working on getting away from cash payments since the announcement of the criminal investigation, officials said. 

“The investigation into and subsequent audits of the Register of Deeds Office highlighted the need to transition the ROD Office to accepting credit and debit card payments for transactions in the vital records area,” Demi says.  

In the matter of the “Horizon Issues,” all departments don’t receive funding or action for each of their requests. However, in one example, Wake County Parks in 2014 offered this suggestion: “Implement a comprehensive online registration system that will allow park users to browse course and facility options online, sign up electronically, and pay with a credit/debit card.”

By the 2015 budget, the requested system was in place.

Demi, the spokeswoman, says the schedule for fulfilling requests depends on discussions between department heads and the Wake County finance department. She also said there are major difference between putting in a credit card system at Parks as opposed to the one proposed for the Register of Deeds office.

“The timing would have been determined by the ROD Office and the Finance Department, as they would have had to collaborate on integrating the new electronic payment software into the existing ROD computer system,” she says.

“Regarding Parks, I can confirm that the ROD system is much more complex than the Parks system.”

tgoldsmith@indyweek.com


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