Probe focuses on sheriff's office fund

Money apparently missing from Arundel account

March 30, 2004|By Andrea F. Siegel and Ryan Davis | Andrea F. Siegel and Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County police are investigating the possible embezzlement of thousands of dollars from an obscure account in the sheriff's office that until recently accepted cash in lieu of checks when deputies were hired to serve court papers.

The criminal investigation, which began Friday as a result of a random audit this year, could go back five to seven years. Several county officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said it might involve $10,000 or more in unaccounted funds from serving civil lawsuit paperwork for the Circuit Court.

"We acknowledge the fact that there is an ongoing inquiry in our process of collecting fees for the service of civil process," said Sheriff George F. Johnson IV.

Johnson said the investigation might turn up flawed recordkeeping or find that nothing was done wrong.

"We have not found out definitively if there is wrongdoing yet," Johnson said.

The sheriff said he will act "very swiftly" if wrongdoing is found.

P. Thomas Shanahan, Anne Arundel County police chief, said he was told at a meeting last week with County Auditor Teresa Sutherland and State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee that "impropriety was believed to be taking place."

"The auditor spoke with us about funds that cannot be accounted for that should be accounted for," he said.

Shanahan said the sheriff agreed to the investigation, which also will look at recordkeeping, and that the sheriff's office is cooperating.

Sutherland declined to comment.

Shanahan said he doesn't know how long the investigation will last and that his office will turn over the results to the state's attorney's office.

That office could bring the matter to a grand jury, file criminal charges or determine that no crime has been committed.

Shanahan would not go into details about the investigation other than to say that the civil process service account "is where the discrepancies were found, and that is where we are focusing our investigation."

The account holds money from those who want deputies to serve legal papers for civil lawsuits. They pay $30 to the sheriff's office instead of hiring a private process server.

Most of the payments have been in the form of checks and money orders. But the sheriff's office occasionally accepted cash payments, a practice that predates Johnson's tenure as sheriff.

The sheriff said he learned about the practice while preparing for the audit 2 1/2 months ago and immediately stopped it.

Typically, no more than a few cash payments were made in a week, and people were handed receipts for the cash, Johnson said.

If the papers were not served, the cash was returned and that was reflected on the receipt, Johnson said.

It is unclear who might have had access to the cash over the years.

Johnson, in his third term as sheriff, said he will make appropriate changes in his office's fiscal practices if needed. He said he views the audit in a positive light.

"If there is any wrongdoing done by a member of this agency, we will see that is taken care of, too," Johnson said.

County Executive Janet S. Owens said she learned a week ago that money might be missing from the account. The county auditor called her to seek permission to contact Shanahan and Weathersbee. Owens consented.

Owens said she is not involved in the investigation.

"Any time when citizens' dollars are being misused or there's an appearance they're being misused, that's a very serious matter," she said.

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