A new internal audit of the Wake CountyRegister of Deeds office shows that more than $289,000 went missing there in 2014, bringing the total of money unaccounted for in the office to more than $900,000 during a three-year period.
The latest chapter in the story of the troubled office, from which Register of Deeds Laura Riddick retired in March, shows that more than $1,000 a day went missing on more than 200 days in 2014, with the largest single daily amount $5,384.45 on the May 9 work day.
County manager Jim Hartmann’s office made the new audit available Friday as a public document following a request by The News & Observer.
Previous accountings, which showed more than $600,000 missing in 2015 and 2016, only began after Hartmann and Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman announced in March that the SBI would investigate the office. Freeman and Hartmann said at the time that Riddick, who has not been available for comment, resigned because of illness.
“Internal Audit Director John Stephenson has worked diligently over the past few weeks to analyze the numbers to generate an accurate accounting of how much cash went missing in 2014,” Hartmann said in an email to county leaders. “His analysis reveals that amount is $289,000.”
An INDY survey in July showed that several North Carolina county governments include internal audit departments that perform annually the sorts of hands-on investigation that the Wake County Register of Deeds office has been undergoing since March.
Stephenson will continue examining records from as far back as 2008, the most recent year for which tallies area available, Hartmann said. Riddick was first elected in 1996.
Freeman said in a Friday interview that the painstaking SBI investigation continues, with results possibly to be announced in September. A grand jury could be impaneled at that time.
“That is what their internal audit is reflecting,” Freeman said of the county’s figures. “I don’t have any information that what they are reflecting would be inaccurate. I am not confirming the specific amount.”
All North Carolina counties prepare records of their financial affairs and other relevant statistics for a comprehensive annual financial report, or CAFR. These documents may uncover fraud, but are not carried out with a principal goal of detecting malfeasance. Wake County’s director of finance told the Indy that the annual report took care of a state statutory obligation requiring annual audits of departments that handle cash and other payments.
Sheriff Donnie Harrison, like Riddick an elected official, has requested a business-process review of his office.
Freeman’s position is also publicly elected, but the Wake County courts she overees are a state function and as such are subject to detailed investigations by the Office of the State Auditor.
Wake investigative documents state that Riddick often accepted a day’s take of uncounted cash, added it up by herself, then transferred it to other Register of Deeds staff for official recording. Freeman has said Riddick remains under investigation along with other employees of the office. Riddick has cooperated with the probe, Freeman said.
“I’m very concerned about the increasing sums of money that have gone missing from the Register of Deeds office and appreciate staff’s diligence and hard work looking into this matter going back to 2008,” Board of Commissioners member Greg Ford said in an interview Friday. “It indicates that we need to dig deeper and that this matter needs to be as open and transparent as possible since public funds are involved.”
In addition to property deeds, the office has responsibility for notaries public, marriage licenses, birth and death certificates, and many other public transactions in Wake County.
Some services, such as the $20 marriage fee, can only be paid for in cash.