Wake County commissioners and the Register of Deeds office, in an effort to resolve problems that resulted in a $2.3 million loss, signed a document Monday that changes nothing about the relationship between the two bodies.
Under state law, a county finance director has the authority to audit any county agency that takes in cash. However, participants in a Monday board meeting said, county finance officials tended to lay off former Register of Deeds Laura Riddick's domain because she was an elected official.
Johnna Rogers, Wake County deputy county manager, and John Stephenson, county internal auditor, answer commissioners' questions at a Sept. 18, 2017, meeting.
Meanwhile, during Riddick's tenure, from 1996 until March, at least $2.3 million went missing from money paid in cash for marriage licenses and other vital records.
Riddick stepped down earlier this year, citing bad health. Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman, along with the State Bureau of Investigation, is pursuing a criminal investigation in the case that could result in indictments.
The Board of Commissioners took action Monday by having the register's office sign a document saying it would obey existing law.
"The MOU [memorandum of understanding] doesn't really put into place anything we don't already have the authority under statute
to do," county finance director Susan McCullen said. "It's more clarifying."
The memorandum will do "a lot of really good things," McCullen added.
The document's third section puts the Register of Deeds office on notice that county auditors may come in at any time and look over cash-handling procedures and record-keeping.
"Statute 159-32 allows us to do that; we just haven't done it," McCullen said. "Now that we have that section three in place, we will routinely be looking at them as we would any other department."
The office is now headed by Charles Gilliam, a former judge picked by the Wake County Republican Party to fill the seat of Riddick, also a Republican. Gilliam was out of town at a conference yesterday but signed the agreement before he left.
Wake County internal auditor John Stephenson said his staff was in the midst of auditing county departments but did not make a priority of the Register of Deeds office because Riddick had such a good reputation for thoroughness and reliability.
Freeman said the criminal investigation is proceeding with a focus on finding out where the money went year after year between 2008 and 2016.
"It's one thing to say this much money is unaccounted for," she says. "It's another thing to say this money made it into this account. Our responsibility is to trace where these funds might have ended up."