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Audit check wraps up embezzlement case

With a check totaling more than $61,000 in hand, Mississippi Auditor Stacey Pickering appeared before Lincoln County supervisors Thursday and formally closed his office’s investigation into embezzlement by the county’s former circuit clerk, Terry Lynn Watkins.

     The check Pickering gave the county represents the last of money the auditor’s office says Watkins never turned over to Lincoln County. This money was paid by Watkins’ surety bond, something elected officials must have.

     “This will close it out for us,” Pickering said as he presented the check. “It’s been a long time coming.”

     In total, Watkins had been charged with embezzling or misappropriating nearly $141,148 over several years. Much of that money had been returned or recovered, except for the $61,840.91 Pickering delivered Thursday.

     The recovered money will be returned to the county’s general operating fund, said Chancery Clerk Tillmon Bishop.

     Beyond the money recovered for the county, Pickering’s Communications Director Lisa Shoemaker said Watkins’ bond paid $21,768 to cover the auditor’s office investigative costs. Shoemaker said the county also received money from the state Public Employees Retirement System.

     “(Watkins) had to send her portion of the PERS money, but she didn’t send any of the county’s PERS match,” said Lincoln County District Attorney Dee Bates. “That was the first bit of money we were able to acquire.”

     Watkins accepted a plea bargain in January, just days into her fifth term, that allowed her to avoid a trial on 14 felony counts of embezzlement, covering a number of years ranging from 2004 to 2011.

     Under the terms of the plea bargain, Watkins pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of late deposit of county funds, resigned from office and agreed never to seek elected office again.

     The move to bring criminal charges against Watkins was initiated by the auditor’s office. Bates said he was contacted by the auditor’s office sometime in 2010 about criminal charges against Watkins, several months before her first indictment in November 2010.

     However, Bates said the auditor’s investigators had already been looking at Watkins her for some time.

     “They had been working with her for years to get the money without any criminal charges,” Bates said. “They had been asking her for years to pay, telling her if she got it straight it would be over with.”

     Mississippi counties receive annual audits, and these audits had initially sounded the alarm about Watkins. Copies of Lincoln County’s audits are available online going back until 2004, and red flags were raised even then.

     Circuit clerks pay themselves and employees out of the fees collected by the clerk’s office. After deductions for employee costs, a clerk’s salary is capped at $90,000.

     Audits revealed several instances in which Watkins had retained money beyond her salary cap, even though she was required to turn over such money to the county by April 15 of each year.

     Routine audits also indicate some deductions she made were not documented and therefore could not be verified.

     The audit for fiscal year 2006 notes then that problems with the clerk’s office were turned over to the auditor’s investigative division.

     According to Bates, subsequent investigation revealed even further disarray in the clerk’s books, such as Watkins improperly shuffling money between the clerk’s criminal, civil and operating accounts.