by Julie Tisdale
City & County Policy Analyst
Folks around Wake County have probably heard about the goings on at the Register of Deeds office. For everyone else, the story is outrageous. Over the past 2-3 years, at least $895,000 in cash appears to have gone missing from the office. No one’s sure of the total or how long this had been going on, but at least since 2014. And most of it appears to have disappeared between being handed over to the Register of Deeds herself at the end of the day for counting, which she did alone, and being handed back to staff for deposit. The investigation is ongoing, but it doesn’t look great for Laura Riddick, who was the Register of Deeds until earlier this year.
Figuring out who did what and for how long is a job for someone else. But I’ve been thinking a lot over the past few weeks about how this could go on for so long and involve such huge amounts of money. Was no one counting? Were there no checks? No internal audits? No surprise inspections? After all, this is public money, which means it’s my money and the money of every other Wake County resident. Was there no protection in place for us at all?
The answer seems to be no, there wasn’t. According to some reports, it had been 19 years since the office had been property audited. Essentially, it seems like, this was able to happen because no one really bothered to check. No one was paying attention. There was zero accountability.
Across North Carolina’s 100 counties, I’ve only been able to find 6-8 that have internal audit departments. And even in those, it’s unclear whether they’re really looking for and preventing (or catching early) this sort of fraud and embezzlement. As far as I’ve been able to tell, across the country, it’s the same. There are places where procedures designed to prevent this sort of situation are in place, but they’re rare.
The solution seems to me to be fairly simple. If counties hired a couple of auditors whose job it was to conduct surprise audits looking for this sort of thing, then a) they’d probably find issues before they hit $895,000 and b) it would probably act as a pretty effective deterrent. These auditors wouldn’t have to check every department. They’d just have to do a few each year, without notice, so everyone knew there was the possibility of audit at any time. I suspect that would mostly keep people honest.
Counties might even be able to share these functions. Durham County has internal auditors who are tasked with this type of work. Maybe Wake could learn from Durham. Maybe Wake could even pay for those auditors to come work across the county line a few months out of the year.
And these aren’t expensive offices. In Durham, there are three full time employees, at a cost of $0.94 per person per year. If that prevents huge fraud and embezzlement, it seems a pretty good investment to me, and one that’s important in protecting local taxpayers.
In 2011, Laura Riddick – the same person who now faces suspicion of pocketing hundreds of thousands of dollars of public money from the Register of Deeds office – withdrew in protest from the North Carolina Association of Registers of Deeds. She did so saying that the association had “abandoned fiscal stewardship” and “flouted public accountability for how it spends government funds.” And then, in her open letter outlining why she was leaving the association, she said,
…the association’s leaders, naturally enjoying their power and their perks, have succumbed to the common human temptation to take whatever they can in the absence of strict laws or significant public scrutiny.
She was right about that “common human temptation,” and about the absence of public scrutiny that allows it. And that is why North Carolina’s cities and counties need to consider the steps they should now take to protect local taxpayers from just these sorts of abuses.