Scammer hammers Hertford

Published 11:41 am Saturday, July 2, 2016

WINTON – More details, to include a scam, have been released in the wake of a 30-day suspension to be served by Hertford County Finance Officer Robbin Stephenson.

As reported in the June 25 edition of the R-C News-Herald, Stephenson was to begin serving her month-long suspension on July 1 for “failure and negligence in the performance of her duties,” as noted by Hertford County Manager Loria Williams. Those 30 days away from her job come without pay.

When pressed for more information last week by this newspaper, Williams declined, citing the county’s personnel policy.

On Tuesday, the News-Herald sent a list of 15 questions to Williams in an effort to shed more light on the cause and effect that led to Stephenson’s suspension. One day later, the county’s Board of Commissioners reconvened in a scheduled meeting recessed from June 20 in order to finalize the 2016-17 operating budget. At Wednesday’s meeting, following a closed session to discuss personnel, the Commissioners – per conditions set forth in General State Statute 153A-98(c)(7) approved the release of a statement that basically addressed the questions sent by this newspaper.

The board and Williams agreed that the release of this information was “essential to maintaining public confidence in the administration of county services and to maintain the level and quality of county services.”

This newly released information clearly points out that Hertford County, particularly Stephenson, was the victim of a scam. However, Stephenson was found in violation of her assigned duties – as defined within internal financial control policies – which prompted the suspension.

The scam dates to May 18 where an email, allegedly sent from Williams to Stephenson, directed the finance officer to wire transfer funds in the amount of $48,200 to pay a consultant. Williams was out of the office attending a meeting on May 18.

Stephenson proceeded with what she thought was a legitimate directive from her supervisor (Williams) and wired the money, as instructed via a banking routing number, to an account at Wells Fargo in Norcross, Georgia. The business name listed on the account is Abimbola-Oshidele with an address listed in Norcross, GA. An Internet search conducted by this newspaper for that business name at that address failed to turn up any matches. It appears on a Google map search that the address is an apartment complex.

Upon Williams’ return to her office on May 19, it was discovered that no email was sent nor a directive given to wire money. The determination was made at that time that the county/Stephenson were victims of a scam.

Williams immediately contacted Southern Bank in Winton (where the county keeps its account) and the Hertford County Sheriff’s Office to report the incident.

Sheriff Juan Vaughan told the News-Herald on Thursday that he and his investigators met with Williams on May 19. Prior to his arrival at that meeting, Vaughan stated he had contacted the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation and was advised by that agency to immediately contact the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.

Meanwhile, the Fraud Division with both Southern Bank and Wells Fargo swung into action on the case as they made efforts to retrieve the funds.

“They jumped right on it…the FBI and fraud units with Southern Bank and Wells Fargo,” Sheriff Vaughan said on Thursday. “They are to be commended for the job they all did in this case.”

By the end of May, an official with Southern Bank contacted Williams, informing her that the entire $48,200 had been recovered. On June 1, that amount was returned to the county’s account with Southern Bank.

In follow-up questions sent Thursday by this newspaper to the reasons why Stephenson was found at fault when it appeared she was only following the directive of who she assumed was her supervisor (via the email), Williams said she does not send emails to Stephenson in regards to transferring funds to pay service providers.

“All expenditures must be budgeted and approved under a budget ordinance or an amendment to the same,” Williams said. “Funds (as directed to be paid via the bogus email) were not approved nor budgeted (for payment), thus a violation of state statute (G.S. 159-28), as well as our fiscal and internal control policies were violated.”

Williams again stressed that email is not a means of communicating the transfer of county funds.

“Our service providers and vendors are paid for services rendered via a paper check after (1) work has been performed and a request for payment has been received; (2) a requisition (the County Manager approves all requisitions in excess of $500) and purchase order (approved and released by the Finance Officer) is generated via the financial accounting system; and (3) the subsequent completion of vendor verification via an I-9 form (Accounts Payable Technician) and all other documentation is received for reporting purposes,” she noted.

With that, Williams said, Stephenson did not follow proper protocol, thus leading to her suspension.

The record shows that Stephenson was notified of the suspension on May 20. However, the effective date of the suspension was delayed primarily due to year-end close-out (the county’s fiscal year ended June 30) and the undue burden her absence would have had on the remaining two staff members.

Also, the record shows that several other jurisdictions received the same type of bogus request. When asked which jurisdictions, Williams said she was made aware of a similar situation involving Warren County local government and was informed by an official there that other jurisdictions had received the same request for payment.

Yesterday (Friday), Williams shared with the R-C News-Herald an email correspondence between she and Bertie County Manager Scott Sauer. He said a bogus email was sent April 5 from what appeared to be his iPhone to Bertie Finance Officer William Roberson. That email asked of the “cut-off time to make an international and domestic wire transfer” as well as “what is the present balance in the Operating account.”

“Luckily, he (Roberson) checked it (the email) out with me,” Sauer told Williams. “This may be happening all across the state.”

When asked on Thursday if she felt the perpetrator of this scam would need to possess some general working knowledge of how the county handles its accounts payable, and if she felt it was pure luck or perfect timing that the bogus email was sent on a day when she was out of the office, Williams repeated her reply to both questions.

“I have discussed that with law enforcement, but I am not making any public comments at this time as the matter is under investigation.”

As for the identity of the scammer, Sheriff Vaughan said that information has yet to be made available from the FBI.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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