Officials in Jackson County want to keep the faith with workers

By Cherie Ward/The Mississippi Press

PASCAGOULA — How could a relatively low-ranking county employee lift almost $1 million from the public till? And, what needs to be done once the embezzlement is exposed?

Those questions, and possible solutions, are weighing heavily on the minds of the members of the Jackson County Board of Supervisors.

“We put a lot of trust and faith in our employees — especially those who have been with us a long time — that they are acting appropriately in their positions,” said board President Mike Mangum. “We’ve got to figure out how we continue that and guard ourselves.”

Ginger Lashley, an ex-county finance clerk who earned $20,596 last year, was indicted on eight counts of embezzlement Aug. 31 and accused of taking $890,827 during an eight-year period.

The money was discovered missing in November.

State Auditor Stacey Pickering described the case as possibly largest individual embezzlement in Mississippi history.

Lashley, 50, already had embezzlement crimes on her record when the county hired her.

In 1990, she pleaded guilty to 26 counts of embezzling from a local business. She was sentenced to five years of probation and ordered to pay $7,451.98 in restitution, according to court documents. Jackson County — without a background check — brought her aboard in the finance department eight years later.

Supervisor John McKay said there’s plenty of blame to go around in the failures to detect the thefts.

According to McKay, Lashley “got through a number of audits with the state auditor and (CPA firm) Wolfe, McDuff & Oppie. She would basically take a utility check, say, for example, to Singing River Power, and go deposit it in this bogus account she had without an endorsement. No one asked questions for many, many years.”

Officials with Wolfe, McDuff & Oppie declined to comment.

The form of fraud outlined in Lashley’s indictment “preys on peoples’ trust,” said Shane Loper, chief risk officer at Hancock Bank.

“In this case, Ms. Lashley took advantage of and betrayed the trust of her supervisors, bankers and a community’s sympathy, as well,” he said.

He said the fraud involved an account named the Jackson County Food Drive.

The bank discovered the thefts “during an ongoing audit of all of our accounts to make sure they are in compliance with standards and safeguards required by today’s industry regulations,” Loper said.

“We confronted Ms. Lashley at the Jackson County Courthouse and turned over our findings to the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department,” he said. “We’re continuing to cooperate fully with the ongoing criminal investigation and prosecution of this fraud by Ms. Lashley.”

Supervisor Manly Barton and other board members are preparing for intense discussions about new financial safeguards in county departments.

“If somebody in a position of trust decides they want to steal something, they very well may for a while,” Barton said. “But they will be found out.”

Barton said he wants the board to consider identifying which positions handle cash.

“I would certainly support running background checks on all of them,” Barton said. “We didn’t do that 12 years ago when Ginger was hired, and we didn’t run one on her when we began running background checks seven years ago. She got under the radar.”

Supervisor Tommy Brodnax said, “I’d like to see a yearly audit of all the departments that take in cash. I don’t mean a yearly county audit. I mean an audit of each individual department.”

Brodnax said that supervisors will have to take a more hands-on approach to financial matters.

“I call the department heads the under-board,” Brodnax said. “They have too much leeway. We are full-time supervisors and we need to be more involved. When you rely on other people, things get missed.”

The Lashley embezzlement case isn’t the only one causing concern in county government.

The state auditor’s office is investigating embezzlement allegations involving Ocean Springs Harbormaster Lesley Hamm, who was fired for violating personnel policy. Hamm was hired in December 2005 and earned $40,685 last year.

Two unidentified employees were fired when they were tied to an undisclosed amount of misappropriated money from the county Fair Commission. The missing funds were discovered in August 2009. No arrests have been made in that case, but Pickering reported Aug. 31 that the investigation was ongoing.

Supervisor Melton Harris said, “You can give all the polygraph tests and background checks, but that still won’t prevent someone from getting through the cracks. We have to keep our minds open and instill in the mind of the employee to do the right thing, even when no one is looking.

“That’s the most important part of it. That, and to let them know that we’re doing all we can to minimize this.”