Publisher's Note: This post appears here courtesy of the Carolina Journal. The author of this post is Theresa Opeka.
The former finance director and accounting technician for the Town of Spring Lake pled guilty Wednesday to embezzling more than $500,000 from the Town of Spring Lake between 2016 and 2021.
Gay Cameron Tucker pled guilty to one count of embezzlement from a local government receiving federal funds and one count of aggravated identity theft. Tucker faces up to 12 years in prison.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice Eastern District of North Carolina, Tucker admitted that she wrote checks from the town's bank accounts for her personal use and admitted to forging the signatures of other town officials, including the mayor and town manager. These forged checks were made payable to herself, used to cover her personal expenses, and deposited into bank accounts she controlled.
"Public officials are entrusted to protect public funds,"
said U.S. Attorney Michael Easley. "This defendant breached the public's trust by using public funds intended for her local community to pay her own personal expenses. Public corruption is a crime that affects all of us and undermines our public institutions."
The FBI is investigating the case, and Assistant U.S. Attorneys William M. Gilmore and Karen Haughton are prosecuting the case.
N.C. State Auditor Beth Wood's office referred an audit they performed on the town to the FBI. The audit indicates poor supervision was to blame: a report Wood issued states that the former finance director did not ensure that Tucker was reconciling bank statements, and "the Town Board of Aldermen neither received nor requested financial information on a consistent basis that would have revealed financial issues such as the misuse of town funds."
The state examiners found that Tucker wrote 72 checks between 2018 and 2021 and deposited them into her local bank accounts and to Heritage Place Senior Living for the care of her mother.
The Local Government Commission took control of the town's finances in October after some of the financial malfeasance came to light, resulting in concerns that the town couldn't balance its annual $13 million budget. State officials found that the town permitted spending that wasn't in the general fund budget. It was revealed that the town got a $1 million loan in October from the South River Electric Membership Corporation to build a fire station without getting LGC approval.
"I wish we weren't talking about this because I wish the citizens of Spring Lake weren't defrauded,"
N.C. State Treasurer Dale Folwell told Carolina Journal. "It (the guilty plea) may restore people's confidence in government because the result in the courtroom today was a joint effort between the Treasurer's office, State Auditor Beth Wood, and prosecutor Easley."
Folwell says there is also a felony forfeiture law that allows the state to take a pension away from the period of time that a person is indicted or convicted of embezzlement or a sex crime, etc. He said they would be following up on that with Tucker.
"If you put your left hand on the Bible and you raise your right hand to uphold the laws of your community or the state if you are convicted of a crime while in your public service duties, you are going to have your pension credit removed for those years you are convicted of,"
said Folwell. "Because there is nothing that ticks off citizens more than embezzlers who are embezzling and earning pension service credits while they are doing it."
He also said his office would be making sure the final order from the judge reflects the language they need, not just about the pension plan but about the recapturing of any money she might have in her 401k plan at the Treasurer's office.
Folwell's office and Wood's office will be working with N.C. Department of Motor Vehicles Commissioner Wayne Goodwin to get the VIN numbers of almost 35 missing town vehicles and run them through the DMV's system to find out where they are.
He said if they find out they are registered in another county, that will open another can of worms.
"If that is true, then we have another problem,"
he said. "Who sold them? Who sold them? How did that transaction take place?"
Folwell said he isn't convinced that the town leaders are interested in preserving the town after all the corruption that took place.
"The Town of Spring Lake is still drowning,"
he said. "I am concerned about what's going to happen when the current interim city manager leaves. Are the citizens going to go back down the same rabbit hole they have been in for a decade or more?"
The Spring Lake indictment prompted Folwell to tout provisions in Senate Bill 265, which became law on July 7 when Democrat Gov. Roy Cooper signed it.
"One provision in there is that after a certain period of time if audits are not turned in on a timely basis as required, that the city or county's sales tax refund can be withheld,"
he said. "For the state of North Carolina to require people to do audits and then there's no consequence for failure to meet that obligation is also unacceptable. The fact is that the right types of audits could have caught these types of violations hundreds of thousands of dollars ago."
C.J. Staff contributed to this story.