January 20, 2018 10:01:03 PM
Alex Holloway - [email protected]
Starkville is striving to improve the controls it has in place to monitor for cash irregularities after an embezzlement investigation rocked its Parks and Recreation department.
A fifth suspect in an alleged Parks embezzlement conspiracy, 38-year-old Schronda Eddins of Columbus, turned herself in to Starkville police Friday morning. On Thursday, three others, including former department director Herman Peters, 51, of Starkville; and former Parks contractors Anthony Stevenson, 33, of Starkville, and Marion Watson, 46, of Eupora, turned themselves in on the same charge.
According to court affidavits, Peters is accused of embezzling a total of $21,702.50 between January 2015 and November 2017. The affidavits say Peters conspired with former Parks administrative assistant Evans to pay Watson, Stevenson and Eddins, each of who are contractors, for more hours than they worked.
Evans turned herself in to SPD on Dec. 29 for embezzling $2,000 in her capacity as an administrative assistant for the parks and recreation department, according to an affidavit. She was released from jail on $2,500 bond.
The other four suspects are out of jail after posting $5,000 bond.
Mayor Lynn Spruill the city is strengthening its receipt-tracking process to better trace transactions. She said an effort is underway to make sure employees who take in cash give receipts and that a duplicate of that receipt is produced when the money is stored or otherwise collected. A third copy of the receipt is also to be sent to the city clerk's office.
She said the city is also trying, as much as is reasonable to account for department-to-department variations, to make sure the departments that handle cash have similar methods for dealing with it to create a more standardized approach.
Additionally, she said, the city is asking auditors who perform the annual city audit to specifically recommend better cash control measures where possible.
"We've asked them to take a look at our cash control measures and see what they can do to help us make them more effective," Spruill said. "Obviously, we have made some changes since the original discovery, but if there's a way to do that better, we've asked them to recommend that."
Peters served as Starkville's director of Parks and Recreation from the time the city took on the formerly independent Starkville Parks Commission in 2015 until aldermen fired him on Jan. 2. In December, aldermen placed Peters and Evans on unpaid administrative leave for "irregularities" that surfaced regarding both employees.
Spruill said bringing Parks and Recreation under city control in 2015 put a "fresh set of eyes" on the department, but she noted that a search for embezzlement wasn't what led to the discovery.
She said the investigation came into being through a concern to make sure the city had proper accountability for its employees -- especially those who work with children. While the contractors arrested did not work directly with children, she said the concerns surfaced when people who should normally be aware of who's working in those positions didn't know them.
"Once we look at them and someone says 'I don't know that person,' the next question is obviously 'Why in the world not?'" Spruill said. "You start out trusting your employees, until you're given a reason not to. In this case, we found a reason, but it highlighted that we need to be cautious with our cash handling methods so that we're secure in handling the public's money and maintaining the public trust."