A woman who worked for the St. Louis Assessor's Office has been charged with embezzling money from city homeowners, according to a recent report from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The employee in question was not required to undergo a background check prior to starting her job—a fact that could encourage a policy overhaul within the Assessor's Office. The woman is facing three felony charges and one misdemeanor charge for her crimes.
The Assessor's Office employee was identified as a "clerk typist"—a low-level position that did not directly involve access to city accounts or other monetary responsibilities. Because the position doesn't involve the handling of money, the city does not require candidates to pass background checks as a condition of employment. However, such logic is arguably flawed, given the fact that the employee did have the task of processing property tax refunds for city residents. In other words, her job did involve money—just not in a traditional way that meant access to or control of city accounts.
It was in the processing of tax refunds that the Assessor's Office employee committed her numerous counts of embezzlement. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch report notes that, on four occasions, the woman forged tax refund requests for property owners throughout the city. She then tampered with the information for these individuals in the city computer system. The result? The fraudulent refund checks were sent to her friends, rather than to the property owners themselves. Police say that the woman would then meet up with her friends to collect the money from the fraudulent tax refunds.
The Assessor's Office employee was caught when someone in another government office—the St. Louis Collector of Revenue—noticed that they had processed two refund checks to the same address. When the suspect was ultimately fired from the Assessor's Office on December 14th, she had embezzled tax refunds from four different people in the space of a month. Police say the total dollar value of the embezzlement was $2,400. Three of the occurrences involved embezzlement of more than $500—the line for a felony charge—while one was still in the misdemeanor range.
If the Assessor's Office had done a thorough background check, they might have discovered a 2001 conviction for "fraudulent use of a credit device." That finding might have barred her from working for the government office, and certainly would have resulted in a reduction in privileges. According to the Post-Dispatch article, the Assessor's Office doesn't customarily give the computer privileges the woman had to anyone not in a supervisory position. Due to criticisms of customer service in the tax refund process, though, the office decided to use lower-level employees to sponsor the requests. Unfortunately, they didn't revise their background check policy to go along with the heightened responsibilities.
Right now, officials from the Assessor's Office say they have reconsidered their decision to give non-supervisors high-level privileges in the computer system. That course of action is one way to avoid incidents like this in the future, but being more thorough about background checks might be the better choice. Since employees in government offices often have access to files about local residents, vetting those employees more thoroughly would do a lot to increase security and reduce abuse of privileges.