How are we protecting your tax dollars?

Published 9:50 am Wednesday, December 30, 2020

When I was first appointed State Auditor nearly two and a half years ago, I was determined to lead from the front in tracking down fraud, theft and embezzlement from you, the taxpayers. Since then, I am proud of the work my investigative team has done and the amount of money we have recovered.

In that spirit, and as 2020 comes to a close, it’s a good time to update you on some of the local cases that my investigators have been working on to help protect your money.

Just last month, special agents from my office arrested Kimberly Davis, a former deputy municipal clerk in Monticello, and issued a demand letter alleging she owed the Monticello taxpayers nearly $42,000.

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Ms. Davis was indicted for embezzlement and alteration of records after my investigators showed evidence that, for over a year, she embezzled from the town by taking cash meant to pay water bills. The case will now go to trial. The people of Monticello work hard in order to pay their water bills, and they deserve to know that their money isn’t being stolen.

Further, despite the breakout of the COVID-19 pandemic in Mississippi in throughout March and April, the committed investigators in my office did not skip a beat. In March, they arrested Brandy Russell, the former Lawrence County Soil and Water Conservation District clerk, after she was indicted for embezzlement. Ms. Russell was accused of using government accounts to pay herself for bogus travel reimbursement requests, purchase her own groceries, and even write checks directly to herself for cash.

After she was discovered, she repaid the conservation district over $10,000 and her employment was terminated. However, after the incident was reported to my office, my team identified additional taxpayer losses, so a demand letter worth $8,733.05 was issued to Ms. Russell. I’m pleased that, even during the early challenges posed by COVID-19, my office continued to go after fraudsters and bring them to justice — Ms. Russell’s case being a great example.

One final case I want to highlight is from 2019. Over that summer, Jan Coleman, the former director of the Hazlehurst United Methodist Church Child Care & Preschool, was indicted for fraud and embezzlement of Mississippi Department of Human Services (MDHS) funds.

For some background, MDHS administers public funds directly to childcare providers to subsidize childcare costs of families. Ms. Coleman was accused of making fraudulent claims to MDHS for children who were not enrolled in the childcare center she directed. Ms. Coleman allegedly submitted multiple fraudulent claims worth over $75,000 from November 2014 to July 2018.

Hazlehurst United Methodist Church Child Care & Preschool terminated Ms. Coleman in July 2018. Soon after, the alleged fraud was discovered and self-reported by the childcare provider. It was unfortunate that Ms. Coleman was able to defraud the taxpayers for such a long time — especially with money that was intended for our children — but I am grateful for the coordinated efforts by several state agencies that brought her scheme to light.

So much of the work that my dedicated team of law enforcement officers and investigators do happens out of the public eye, but I could not be more thankful for their continued efforts. They are vitally important when it comes to safeguarding public funds and ensuring that those who choose to break the law are held accountable. Protecting your tax dollars is a responsibility I do not take lightly, and as long as I am your State Auditor, my team and I will continue to do just that.

Shad White is the 42nd State Auditor of Mississippi.