Olympia attorney Steve Bean knows what his embezzlement victims will say before the words come out of their mouths.
“She was my most trusted employee.”
“He was like family to me.”
“She babysat our kids.”
“We celebrated the holidays at his house.”
You get the picture: Time and time again, employees in positions of trust and financial control of enterprises ranging from a multimillion-dollar medical office to nonprofits operating on shoestring budgets have bad intentions.
And they usually don’t quit stealing from their employer unless or until they are caught, noted Thurston County senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Mark Thompson.
I met with Thompson last week in his cramped courthouse office, where every flat surface is piled thick with case files. They’re not all embezzlement cases, but many are.
He was generous with his time, giving me 30 minutes to talk about white-collar crime. He finally excused himself, explaining he had to prepare for a Superior Court sentencing hearing that afternoon for — you guessed it — a woman who pleaded guilty to stealing nearly $15,000 from Roosevelt Elementary School’s Parent Teacher Association while serving as its treasurer.
When Olympia police handed over the case to Thompson, he filed a first-degree theft charge against the embezzler. First-degree theft involves $5,000 or more; it’s a class B felony that carries a standard punishment of 43 to 57 months.
Thompson originally sought a sentence — one year and a day — just long enough to ensure she did “hard time” in state prison. But the defendant paid back all the money she stole, so Thompson dropped his recommendation to 90 days in the county jail.
Then the PTA officials weighed in on behalf of the former employee, asking Thompson to cut her some slack. He reached a plea bargain with her attorney, and on Jan. 10 Aleta M. Taylor, 40, received a 30-day sentence.
In her tearful apology before Judge Carol Murphy, Taylor said she was pregnant at the time and mired in personal problems, including her husband losing his job. She said she always planned to pay the money back, but the thefts became like an addiction.
Thompson defended the plea bargain, suggesting there’s not much difference between a jail lockup that lasts 30 days and one that lasts 90 days. Others, including Bean, thought Taylor got off easy.
According to Bean, the vast majority of embezzlement cases never make it to the police or prosecutor’s office.
Businesses and nonprofit groups are embarrassed and fearful of losing public credibility, so they might be inclined to deal with it internally — perhaps just seeking restitution and firing the employee.
But there’s an inherent danger in that, Thompson said. Companies unwittingly hire those suspect employees, and become their next victim.
“We encourage employees to report these thefts,” Thompson said.
Bean, an Olympia attorney since 1965, represents a number of professional clients, including doctors.
It didn’t take him long to realize that doctors and dentists are vulnerable to office theft. They’re so busy caring for patients, they might not pay attention to the business side of the practice.
He has prepared a nine-page booklet titled “Embezzlement Prevention and Detection” to share with his clients. He also speaks at about four workshops and seminars a year in the Puget Sound region, showing bankers, doctors and other professionals how to avoid white-collar crime.
What are the top two or three tell-tale signs that an employee is a theft suspect? I asked.
“Refusal to take a vacation, refusal to allow help from co-workers and a habit of taking the office books home nights and weekends,” he said without hesitation.
What can employers do to prevent embezzlement?
“Adopt a good set of internal bookkeeping controls with the help of an accountant and a lawyer. Get proactive about protecting your assets,” he said.
Thompson added a third tip: Make sure the employer can view all checks issued by the business online.
I’m no expert, but it seems to me there have been more embezzlement cases in the news since the Great Recession struck in 2008. Bean agreed.
“With the economic downturn, there’s been more family financial problems,” he said. Drug addictions, marital discord and gambling problems also can lead to theft at the workplace, he said.
Thompson said he has seen a slight increase in cases in recent years. While embezzlement cases are not tracked separately from other theft cases handled by his office, he estimated that in the past four-plus years he has prosecuted several cases of theft over $50,000 and a couple of dozen cases of theft over $10,000.
Bean and Thompson agree that businesses of all shapes and sizes benefit from an embezzlement-prevention plan. They can help avoid a lot of emotional pain and financial loss.
John Dodge: 360-754-5444