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Open letter from Probate Judge Barry Moore to the citizens of Franklin County

To the citizens of Franklin County from Probate Judge and Commission Chairman Barry Moore:

It has come to my attention that there are people throughout the county who still have questions and concerns in regard to the theft of county funds by former County Administrator Crista Madden. As Probate Judge, I am happy to try to answer these questions and make sure the public has the facts, since I am also aware there has been some false information passed around at this point.

When something of this magnitude takes place, it’s easy for the facts to get misplaced in a sea of speculation or for incorrect information to be spread by those who aren’t fully aware of what took place. I believe strongly in honesty and transparency, especially in a situation like this that involves taxpayer money (money that the people of this county have worked hard for), and I fully believe our citizens should be made aware of exactly what happened, how the money was taken, how it went undetected, and how I, along with the rest of the commission and our office staff, plan to move forward to try to prevent something like this from happening in the future.

Prior to her departure from her position as county administrator in August of 2017, Crista Madden handled many aspects of the county’s finances as part of her job and had done so throughout her duration in this position. During this time, the Franklin County Commission went through an audit each year (just as many other businesses do), and there were never any negative findings or suspicious activities noted, nor were there any recommendations to change our internal controls or the way we handled our finances. Because of this, there was never any reason to question the job she did or to change any of our processes. As far as I and members of the commission knew, and according to the audits we received, our finances were in order and there was never any reason to suspect anything was wrong.

After her departure in August, other employees were added to the bank accounts for the County Commission’s funds, and these employees began to take over Crista’s duties. On February 7, 2018, an employee in the Commission Office noticed that there had been a steady amount of checks written to a particular company in our system but no checks had been issued to this particular company since Crista’s departure.

Thinking this seemed strange, the employee began to look into the matter further. After requesting cancelled check copies from the bank for payments to this particular company, it was discovered that Crista’s name and address appeared on these copies when the bank statements and check copies we had on file in our office listed this legitimate company in our system for these same checks. The employee immediately notified me of what had been discovered, so I advised this employee to request cancelled check copies from the past two fiscal years for each instance where this specific company had received a check from the Franklin County Commission. After we received these copies from the bank, it was discovered that each time a check had been written to this legitimate company, it had ended up being written to Crista with her name, address and endorsement on the check.

At this point I knew we were looking at a serious problem. There is certain protocol in place in the event that something like this happens, and I knew the next step to take would be to contact the State of Alabama Examiners of Public Accounts so they could look into the matter and see exactly what we were looking at, so I contacted them on February 9, 2018. At this point, I made the decision not to tell anyone else what was happening, not because I wanted to hide anything but because I knew this was a serious situation involving the theft of public funds, and, besides Crista, I didn’t know who else might be involved. For all I knew, it could have involved other people in the office, other county employees or even elected officials, and my main responsibility was to the citizens of this county.

So, not knowing who all might be involved and not wanting to take a chance and potentially interfere with the investigation or tip off someone who might be involved, I contacted the Examiners Office directly and let them handle it from there.

On February 13-15, 2018, the State Examiners sent three auditors to the Commission Office, and they looked through our files. After their initial investigation, they contacted the Alabama Attorney General’s Office, which took over the investigation, and the matter was out of my hands. They were in charge of collecting evidence, and I, along with the rest of my staff, cooperated fully and provided all information and documents that were requested.

On March 1, the AG’s Office issued a subpoena to the Franklin County Commission for files, bank statements and for the computer Crista used. I let the commissioners know that day that a subpoena had been issued and an investigation was taking place but couldn’t reveal any other information at that time. Numerous files and records were requested up until March 13, as agents continued to determine the full extent of the theft, how far it dated back, which funds the money had been stolen from, how much money had been taken, and how the thefts had occurred even though the Franklin County Commission’s finances had been audited and cleared every single year.

When the investigation was completed, I was informed that Crista had stolen $753,889.21 from three main county funds from December 15, 2007 through July 27, 2017. The three main funds were the General Fund, the 7 Cent Gasoline Tax Fund, and the Solid Waste Fund, with the majority of the money being stolen from the Solid Waste Fund.

The way she managed to steal this money without it being detected by our auditors was by altering legitimate purchase orders and creating fake bank statements that were made to look exactly like the real bank statement. From what we learned, this was the process:

Prior to printing a check to this legitimate company she used as a decoy, she would place tape over the payee name and address line. Once she printed the checks and made copies showing the legitimate company’s name, she would then remove the tape and reprint the check at her desk with her name and address in the payee section. This caused the check to show in our system and on the copies we had that it had been made out to a valid vendor.

When the bank received the checks, they would have had no way of knowing that a check made out to Crista wasn’t legitimate, so this wouldn’t have raised any red flags on their end either. When Crista would pick up the bank statements from the bank, she would bring them back to her office and alter these statements, making exact replicas but having them reflect the valid payee instead of showing herself as a payee, so there was no record left in our files to show she ever made checks out to herself.

On March 19, 2018, Crista went before retired Colbert County judge Pride Tompkins, who was appointed to preside over this case after Franklin County Circuit Judge Terry Dempsey recused himself from the case. She entered a guilty plea to two ethics violations, Use of Official Position for Personal Gain and Use of Equipment for Personal Gain, which are standard charges when the funds that have been stolen are from a government entity and not a private business. Charges are handled differently in these cases than in regular criminal theft cases. Once the plea was completed, I was able to let the commissioners know what the investigation had revealed.

After pleading guilty, Crista’s sentencing date, which was determined by Judge Tompkins based on his schedule and availability, was set for June 11, 2018, at which time Judge Tompkins will determine her punishment for these crimes. Contrary to what some have said and thought, Crista’s punishment will not be determined by me or by anyone else in Franklin County. It will be solely determined by the judge appointed in this case.

I know there have been many people throughout the county who have been shocked by this crime, but believe me when I say that no one was more shocked than I was when we discovered the amount of money that had been stolen or that this had been going on for the past 10 years, almost two years before I even appointed her as the County Administrator. I have talked to other employers who have had employees steal from their business or office, and the feelings all seem to be the same—there was an initial shock, a deep feeling of sadness and betrayal, and then an indignation and anger that an employee would take advantage of their position and betray the trust of not only myself and the rest of our staff, but steal money from the people of this county who I have pledged to represent to the best of my ability.

Moving forward, I will continue to uphold this pledge. Even though I can not determine Crista’s sentence myself, the AG’s Office did inform me that I can write a letter on behalf of the people of Franklin County that will be read during the sentencing on June 11, which I intend to do. I want to make sure it is known that not only am I hurt and angry about what she did, but I’m also representing our citizens who are also hurt and angered that their taxpayer money was stolen.

I will request a punishment that fits the crime, and even though it was already specified in her plea agreement that she must repay the money she stole, I will reiterate the necessity of this money being repaid as soon as possible and that every cent goes back into the funds that were stolen from, a majority of that being the Solid Waste Fund.

This is something I have taken very seriously, and I have already been working with our staff to prevent this from ever happening again. While we can not change the past, we can most certainly take steps to ensure that the taxpayer’s money is protected from this point forward now that we know records can be manipulated in a way where wrongdoing is undetectable by an audit.

The main thing that allowed Crista to steal this money came from the bank statements and her altering them to look exactly like the official bank statements, down to using identical fonts and graphics. To make sure this doesn’t happen again, I and two other employees are now listed on the accounts for the Franklin County Commission’s funds at the bank. One of these employees is designated to pick up all bank statements from the bank and return them to a separate employee at the office immediately. This employee, who does not have any access to the funds and whose name is not be listed on any accounts and who has no access to writing checks, then opens the statements and verifies them to make sure nothing is incorrect or suspicious. Once the statements have been verified, this employee initials the verification and dates it. The statements are then given to a third employee who reconciles them.

I hope this answers the questions Franklin County citizens have had about this situation, how it was able to go undetected for so long, how we handled it, where I stand on a recommendation for her punishment, and how we plan to prevent this from happening again in the future. It is very important to me that our citizens are kept informed and that you know you can count on me to be open, honest and transparent, even when situations are tough and it would be easier on me both personally and professionally to not be so transparent.

I take my position very seriously and truly appreciate the citizens of Franklin County for allowing me to serve them in this capacity. I, along with the commissioners and our staff, have learned a great deal from this experience, and I know it will allow us to be better and more cautious leaders and public servants moving forward.

If anyone has any further questions or concerns about this matter, you are more than welcome to contact me at the Franklin County Commission by mail at P.O. Box 1028, Russellville, AL 35653, or by phone at 256-332-8850, and I will be happy to assist you in any way I can.

Sincerely,

Barry Moore

Franklin County Probate Judge  

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