INDIANAPOLIS — In 2013, a state audit found such sloppy bookkeeping in a Bartholomew County township that a trustee and her deputy were arrested on felony counts of welfare fraud and theft.
The trustee, Christa Acton, was sentenced to four years with one year on home detention and three years on probation. She was to make restitution of $16,110 to the township and $3,500 for a state audit, paying $25 a week. She also received credit for the one day she was in jail.
Her deputy, Laurie Baker, was charged with 18 counts involving payment of township assistance funds to herself through inaccurate application forms; she also received home detention and probation.
Cases of theft of public funds aren’t confined to Bartholomew County nor are they solely limited to township trustees.
Any Indiana public official convicted of theft could face having their public pension garnished by a judge, under House Bill 1192 filed by state Rep. Ryan Lauer, R-Columbus, a former Bartholomew County Council member.
"I think they ought to have all avenues to get all the means necessary to recoup monies that was stolen," Lauer said. "To me, it’s a strong deterrent to know that if you go down that road not only are your assets at risk but so is your pension."
The bill passed unanimously last week through the House Committee on Courts and Criminal Code.
The Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council supports the bill.
IPAC Executive Director David Powell recalled a case where an audit, following reports of improperly paying unemployment taxes, cost a community $25,000. Garnishing pensions could help a community recoup such costs.
"The amount of money actually missing wasn't big, but the consequences to that little town was huge. The person who took the money didn't have it to pay it back," Powell said.
When first introduced, the bill would have required a mandatory 30 days in jail for officials convicted of theft. However, that provision has been removed.
According to a study by the Legislative Services Agency, 14,325 people were convicted and sentenced for Level 6 felony theft between 2014 and '18. Of those, 15 percent were not confined in either a county jail prior to trial, after trial or in prison. However, 41 percent were confined between one and 30 days, and 44 percent were confined for more than 30 days.
"The vast majority of our public servants are good, honest, hard-working people. When this happens, it hurts all of us. It erodes the public’s trust in government and it also affects how people perceive the public servants that are doing a great job in their roles across the state," Lauer said. "I think it’s a particularly egregious offense because as a public servant you’ve taken an oath where you’re entrusted with taking care of our tax dollars."
Among theft cases, Lauer noted the near-shuttering of the Wayne Township Volunteer Fire Department in Hamilton County after its treasurer made off with taxpayer dollars.
In October, former treasurer Norman Burgess pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court for Southern Indiana to one count of wire fraud and was sentenced to 15 months in federal prison. He was ordered to pay $139,550 in restitution in the federal case but with additional state fines, the restitution totals $754,000.
"My focus is on making sure the citizens, the taxpayers, my constituents have full confidence in their government and when situations like this happen that they’re dealt with swiftly and that the units like fire departments are able through every avenue to get their money back," Lauer said.