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Wednesday, 25 February 2015 21:16

Elections embezzlement case lands on DA’s desk

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fr BOEIt could be just a matter of months before District Attorney Ashley Welch decides whether to press charges in a year-old case of alleged embezzlement at the Macon County Board of Elections, but the investigation still has legs on the federal level.

 

Earlier this month, the N.C. State Bureau of Investigations completed its investigation and turned an extensive report over to District Attorney Ashley Welch, who is now tasked with deciding how to proceed. But at some point during the investigation, the Federal Bureau of Investigations began working alongside the SBI, and its work in determining which, if any, federal laws were broken is ongoing. 

It was January 2014 when a tipster alerted Macon County Manager Derek Roland that all was not well at the board of elections, resulting in a week-long lockdown of the elections office and a quick decision to call in the SBI. The SBI followed a paper trail to discover $50,000 in allegedly fraudulent billing. 

The investigation concerns 37 checks for county money that Kim Bishop, erstwhile director of the board of elections, had allegedly requested and signed. The checks, totaling about $50,000, were supposedly written to pay contractors for part-time work, according to a search warrant filed at the time. However, the search warrant said, the people the checks were made out to never received them, and the election board members whose names were on the signature lines said they’d never signed them. 

In addition, the amounts requested were out of line for the time of year and for a lead-up to a relatively quiet November election, area election directors agreed, and none of the contract employees named on the checks had submitted a W9 tax form, according to county records. 

Though the investigation has been ongoing, with no charges yet filed, Bishop’s tenure at the Board of Elections has not. She was placed on paid leave immediately following the investigation’s launch and resigned in May, after the county board of elections petitioned the state board to fire her. 

To locals who have been following this story of alleged corruption in an agency charged with providing fair and unbiased elections in Macon County, the process may have seemed unduly long and drawn-out. But that’s not really the case, Welch said. 

The unusual part of this investigation is not its length, she said, but rather the fact that it’s been in the public eye since its initiation. Most of the time, nobody knows an SBI investigation is going on until it’s over. 

“I could have told you last year that it would be a year or so before we would get a report because of the length, of the intensity of the type of investigation that we were dealing with,” Welch said. “That takes a really long time. They actually got this to us fairly quickly.”

While the state side of the investigation is complete, the federal side is still ongoing.

“There is always a likelihood that a state criminal investigation would involve a federal law enforcement agency when there is a possibility that a federal law has been broken,” explained Teresa West, spokeswoman for the SBI, which will continue to work the case with the FBI. 

West could not pinpoint exactly when the FBI became involved but said that federal involvement happens only in a minority of SBI cases. In 2014, the SBI opened 2,528 cases, only 79 of which became joint investigations with federal law enforcement agencies, which include but are not limited to the FBI. 

Of those 79, only 13 involved embezzlement or other financial crimes. The most common types of cases to require federal involvement were drug investigations, which accounted for 33 cases, and child pornography and computer crimes, which accounted for 21 cases. 

On the prosecutor’s side, Welch is now ready to get to work on deciding the future of the case. 

“I think the public was looking at it thinking, ‘My gosh, what’s taking them that long a time?’ when in reality it was a perfectly normal amount of time,” she said. “This is not abnormal at all.”

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