Zoeller says public funds misspent by parks bookkeeper

Bryan Cohen Feb. 3, 2012, 12:09pm


BOONVILLE, Ind. (Legal Newsline) - Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller filed a lawsuit on Monday against an ex-Warrick County parks bookkeeper seeking to freeze her assets in order to recover more than $34,000 in public funds she allegedly misspent.

Kristi L. Gates, the former Warrick County Parks and Recreation Department bookkeeper, allegedly owes $34,393.14 for multiple acts of public fund misappropriation while she was an employee, which must be repaid. Zoeller's lawsuit seeks $34,393.14, in addition to treble damages, costs and attorneys fees from Gates, a resident of Boonville.

The State Board of Accounts issued an audit report on Dec. 2, determining the amount of money that Gates allegedly owed to Warrick County.

"Families who enjoy local parks assume the property taxes and admission fees that they pay will be used to benefit park facilities," Zoeller said. "According to the audit, this bookkeeper betrayed the public trust by pocketing park funds and using public dollars for her own personal expenses - not once, not a few times, but repeatedly. We have filed this lawsuit to make this individual reimburse the public treasury for the amounts she owes."

The audit said multiple examples of misappropriation between Dec. 1, 2009, and May 15, 2011, including that Gates failed to deposit all money collected for the parks and recreation department, such as park gate receipts that were often not recorded at all, and money from fees and transactions, creating a net cash shortage of $18,025.75.

Gates also allegedly used the park's credit card processing system to give herself unsupported refunds on her personal debit or credit cards. This alleged practice effectively transferred public money into her personal accounts for a total of $2,252.

Additionally, Gates allegedly used the parks department's Sam's Club credit card at least 45 times to make purchases for her personal household, which are not allowed with public funds. These alleged purchases included baby wipes, clothing, diapers, a bed frame, a twin mattress and box spring, fuel and miscellaneous groceries that totaled $1,778.62. Gates also allegedly neglected to file the parks department's sales tax returns to the Department of Revenue, incurring $769.58 in interest and penalties.

The State Board of Accounts required an additional $11,567.19 to conduct the audit of the finances of the department, for which Zoeller's lawsuit also seeks a repayment from the defendant.

On Monday, Zoeller filed a motion for a temporary restraining order requesting that the Warrick County Circuit Court freeze Gates' assets, which include four vehicles and any retirement or pension accounts, until a hearing can be held on the motion by the state for a preliminary injunction.

Zoeller also requested that the court enter a civil judgment against Gates. Zoeller would then be able to pursue a monetary judgment through collections and could potentially garnish wages, attach liens on property or take any other actions a creditor could take to collect on a debt.

Bonding company Fidelity and Deposit Company of Maryland was also named as a defendant. The company wrote a $10,000 surety bond on Gates in 2009 and 2010 and a $15,000 bond in 2011 to act as an insurance policy against potential theft. The state seeks to redeem the surety bond to reimburse the county in part for the amount owed. Portions not covered by the bonds would be the personal responsibility of Gates.

The Warrick County Prosecutor filed criminal charges against Gates in October, including five counts of theft and two counts of fraud, which all qualify as Class D felonies. Gates is currently awaiting trial, which is set for March 27. Decisions about filing criminal charges in cases related to audits are completely the jurisdiction of county prosecutors, not Zoeller's office. Whether a public official is civilly responsible for repaying funds that have been misappropriated is a distinct issue from whether they are responsible criminally for a loss.

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