$586k discrepancy in public funds after years of theft in Caldwell Parish, audit reports

Sheriff Clay Bennett says he and his staff are working hard to improve operations and they’ve already made a lot of progress.
Published: Jun. 9, 2022 at 10:39 AM CDT
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CALDWELL PARISH, La. (KNOE) - A recent audit of the Caldwell Parish Sheriff’s Office has revealed a big discrepancy in money that was going in and going out over the last few years.

Nearly six hundred thousand dollars in taxes, fees, and fines collected by the Caldwell Parish Sheriff’s Office was never deposited into a government bank account, a new state audit reports. And auditors say they found evidence that the employee in charge of overseeing the collection and accounting of those public funds actually spent years stealing the money.

The findings released by Louisiana Legislative Auditor in June said that when someone paid their taxes, fees, or fines in cash in recent years, that money was not properly secured in the building. It was not in a locked drawer or box, too many employees had access to the money with no documented accountability over who was accessing it, and it was even used to cash personal checks. On top of that, the audit report says overall record-keeping was inconsistent and unreliable.

The report states auditors found evidence that CPSO received a higher sum of payments than what was actually deposited in the bank accounts from 2017 to 2021.

“We compared CPSO collection records from the property tax and fines and fees software and bank statements and found $586,811 was recorded as collected, but not deposited, from July 1, 2017 to June 30, 2021. Since CPSO did not write receipts for all collections and did not always specify the payment type or the reason for payment, we could not rely on CPSO’s receipt records to determine the amount of funds and/or cash collected,” the report said.

The audit says Deborah Dollar, who first started working at the sheriff’s office in 1985 and was the Chief Civil Deputy at the time, was responsible for overseeing operations involving finances. The audit says she admitted to taking cash from the sheriff’s office:

“According to Ms. Dollar, she started taking cash collections from CPSO in 2017. She stated that she only took cash and deposited it into her or her daughters’ bank accounts. Ms. Dollar’s bank records show cash deposits of $167,398 from January 1, 2017 to September 14, 2021. Her daughters’ bank accounts show an additional $9,489 of cash deposits from January 1, 2017 to September 14, 2021. She further said that her mother gave her money on a regular basis, usually $300, through a check or cash and that she deposited those funds to her personal bank account. We found 37 cash deposits of $300 totaling $11,100 and 9 checks from her mother totaling $2,350 that were deposited to her personal bank account. "

Dollar was arrested in Sept. 2021 on charges of malfeasance in office and felony theft. Further information on the dollar amounts can be found in the full report below.

“Ms. Dollar also told us ‘everyone got paid’ despite the cash she took. She said she transferred funds from the general fund accounts to the property tax and fines and fees bank accounts to ensure there was enough money to cover required disbursements of property taxes and fines and fees to other agencies,” the auditor wrote.

Sheriff Clay Bennett’s response to the auditor’s findings and recommendations are included in the public report. In it, Bennett said, “As you are aware, Deborah Dollar is no longer employed by our office, and is making restitution of the stolen funds as identified in your report. Although Deborah was singularly responsible for most of our deposit and collection process, we have made sweeping improvements to our internal controls in this area.”

Sheriff Bennett said he’s already implemented better security measures in response to the audit. This includes 24-hour cameras, locking cash drawers, an end to employees cashing personal checks, and better record-keeping. He says he’s also trying to phase out cash payments, which was the first listed recommended change from the auditor.

The sheriff’s full response is at the end of the audit below:

Auditor’s recommendations:

The following recommendations were made by the auditor to strengthen security:

  • (1) stop accepting cash payments;
  • (2) prohibit employees from cashing personal checks;
  • (3) provide a lockable, separate cash register for each employee that collects payments;
  • (4) require a complete record of each payment collected, to include the method and reason for the payment;
  • (5) assign separate login IDs to each employee who uses the electronic collection software;
  • (6) require each employee who collects payments to count and record their collections by payment type at the end of the day;
  • (7) assign an employee that does not collect payments to receive and deposit collections from cashiers daily and reconcile deposits to receipts and amounts posted as collected; and
  • (8) deposits funds to separate bank accounts based on the reason the payment was made

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