Caldwell Parish Sheriff's Office Louisiana

Caldwell Parish Sheriff Clay Bennett requested an audit of his department to find how a deputy stole more than $175,000 in taxes and fees. 

(The Center Square) — Loose accounting practices at the Caldwell Parish Sheriff’s Office allowed a deputy to steal more than $175,000 in taxes and fees in recent years, according to a legislative auditor’s report.

The Louisiana Legislative Auditor released a contracted audit of the Caldwell Parish Sheriff’s Office last week that highlighted numerous "internal control deficiencies" involving the accounting system, as well as "risk management, information and communication, control activities, and monitoring."

The issues involved bank reconciliations that did not match the book balance, multiple instances of bank receipts not matching deposits, a lack of receipts for purchases, an inaccurate hand-written ledger for leave time, and a chief civil deputy who set up her own payroll with improper tax withholdings, according to the report.

"The most glaring issue was although two signatures are required for disbursements, one signature was the chief civil deputy and the other was a signature stamp in the possession of the chief civil deputy," auditors wrote. "The chief civil deputy was also responsible for receiving and reviewing the bank statements and reconciling the bank statements monthly."

Auditors noted that because of "the lack of segregation of duties, misstatements could result without being prevented or detected," and that’s seemingly what happened.

"Subsequent to year end, the sheriff contacted the Legislative Auditor’s Office and requested a full investigation of a theft he discovered that was committed by the chief civil deputy," the report reads. "It was discovered that the sheriff’s office received $586,811 more in taxes and fines and fees than was deposited from July 1, 2017 to June 30, 2021.

"The chief civil deputy at the time said she took cash collected by CPSO and deposited it in her and/or her daughters’ bank accounts. Her and her daughters’ bank records show $176,887 of cash was deposited into their bank accounts from January 1, 2017 to September 14, 2021."

Auditors noted that the missing property taxes were covered by "internal transfer of funds" and receiving agencies "were not shorted on their property tax revenue."

The report also cited the sheriff’s office for failing to adopt a formal budget for the corrections fund, as required by law for any account with over $500,000 in revenue.

Auditors made a series of recommendations based on the findings, including a prohibition on cash payments for fines and taxes, banning employees from cashing personal checks from the drawer, locking the cash drawer, improved payment records, and separation of financial and accounting duties.

The Caldwell Parish Sheriff issued a response to the report that explains how the office implemented many of the recommendations.

"The chief civil deputy responsible for the theft is no longer employed by our office, and is making restitution of the stolen funds as identified in the report of the legislative auditor," the response read. "Although she was singularly responsible for most of our deposit and collection process, we have made sweeping improvements to our internal controls in this area."

Those changes included an end to cash payments and prohibiting employees from cashing checks from the cash drawers, as well as locking separate cash drawers and 24-hour video surveillance.

"Our current staff has been retrained regarding the importance of recording their respective collections by payment type at the end of each day," according to the response. "A staff member that is not involved in accepting payments has been tasked with reconciling the physical receipts to the amounts posted to the general ledger periodically."