PORT ANGELES — More than $500,000 has been stolen from the Clallam County Treasurer’s Office dating back to 2004, an ongoing investigation by the state Auditor’s Office revealed.
The investigation so far has focused solely on Catherine Betts, a former $45,000-a-year office cashier since fired by the county.
Sheriff Bill Benedict, who would help investigate the theft for possible criminal charges, and Treasurer Judy Scott, whose office is being investigated, made the amount stolen public in a joint statement issued Tuesday from the Sheriff’s Office.
“The Washington State Auditor’s Office has completed a review of the Treasury Office records and found in excess of $500,000 [half a million] missing,” the statement said.
“The audit and investigation was triggered by the action of a county employee in the Treasurer’s Office, who has been terminated.”
The state Auditor’s Office would not comment Tuesday on the specifics of the investigation, which Scott said dates to 2004, or the accuracy of the amount cited by Benedict and Scott.
“It is important to our office to protect the integrity of the investigation,” agency spokeswoman Mindy Chambers said.
“We do not consider the investigation complete, so I do not have any further comment.”
Benedict said other issues were at play to prompt the disclosure.
“Two weeks can turn into a month, can turn into two months, three months,” Benedict said.
The Auditor’s Office, which began auditing the Treasurer’s Office in May, first said the audit would be completed by mid-July, a deadline since moved to Jan. 31.
“This was an issue that was far enough along that a certain amount could be revealed to the public,” Benedict said.
“I felt that if we did not at least reveal [the approximate amount stolen], which is basically all we said in the press release, that the public might think we might be trying to either delay or cover up unpleasant information.”
Port Angeles police
Port Angeles Police Chief Terry Gallagher, whose department would take the lead in a criminal investigation that would be aided by the Sheriff’s Office, confirmed the accuracy of the Benedict’s and Scott’s statement but had no further comment.
Scott discovered the theft May 19 while reviewing office records and immediately placed Betts on paid administrative leave, from which she was removed on June 1.
Betts was fired June 26.
Betts could not be reached Tuesday for comment and is no longer living in Port Angeles, Benedict said.
But the Auditor’s Office and the state Attorney General’s Office know her whereabouts and believe she is not a flight risk, he added.
More than $1,500
Until Tuesday’s midday issuance of the joint statement, officials had only said that more than $1,500 had been stolen — $1,500 being the threshold for a charge of first-degree theft, a felony.
Benedict and Scott said the investigation has taken so long because so much money was stolen, and it all had to be traced.
“This was a very difficult investigation,” Benedict said.
“There was no attempt by anyone to withhold this information. Once the floodgates opened, we knew it was going to be more than two months. We did not know how much more.”
The Auditor’s Office will forward its report to the state Attorney General’s Office for a possible criminal investigation.
‘Serious jail time’
The theft of $1,500 or more is a felony punishable by one to 10 years in jail and a maximum $20,000 fine.
“We are looking at some serious jail time for this,” Benedict said.
Scott said it involves solely the theft of real estate excise taxes.
Those taxes are paid mostly by title companies on the sale of buildings and land — 1.78 percent and a $5 fee on property sold in unincorporated Clallam County and the cities of Port Angeles and Sequim, and 1.53 percent and a $5 fee in Forks.
Betts was the sole recorder of real estate excise tax transactions, Scott said, and remains the sole suspect.
“The actual cashiering part of it was done through her desk,” Scott said.
“She accepted and processed the money and did the distribution of those funds.”
Scott said exactly how Betts allegedly stole the funds on her own without detection for so long and in such quantity may be revealed in the Auditor’s Office report.
Documents formerly processed by Betts are now scanned by computer for recording purposes, she said.
In addition, more than one person reviews the data, Scott said.
“My thought is, the Lord I wish it hadn’t happened, but it did,” she said, “and now we are dealing with it as best we can and will make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Scott said the accounting system under which the theft occurred was in place in late 2004 when she was appointed treasurer, succeeding Ruth Gerdon.
Gerdon was unavailable for comment on Tuesday.
Scott ran successfully for an unexpired one-year term in 2005 and won a four-year term in 2006.
She and Benedict, also first elected in 2006, are up for re-election in November and plan to run again, they said Tuesday.
________Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-417-3536 or at [email protected]