Ex-clerk indicted in theft surrenders

Woman, 36, had worked for Anne Arundel sheriff

May 20, 2004|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

A former clerical worker accused of stealing more than $10,000 from the Anne Arundel County Sheriff's Office surrendered to police yesterday after she was indicted on a single count of felony theft.

Prosecutors said that Debra Ellen Johnson, 36, of the 400 block of Glen Mar Circle, Glen Burnie, was indicted by a grand jury Friday. The indictment had been sealed pending her being served with a warrant.

Johnson is accused of taking money between July 29, 1997 -- shortly after she was hired full time -- and Jan. 7 of this year, roughly when the office began preparing for a critical audit that later pointed to possible embezzlement from an office account.

Police said $12,305 was stolen.

"This was a devastating betrayal of trust," Sheriff George F. Johnson IV, who is not related to the former clerk, said yesterday. "It has affected all of us very deeply. We have just been sick over it."

Debra Johnson was released yesterday on her own recognizance by a district court commissioner. Telephone calls to her home were not answered.

If convicted, she could face up to 15 years in prison and a $25,000 fine, although cases of nonviolent theft typically bring little, if any, time in jail and no fine, said State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee. Often a judge orders restitution.

Debra Johnson was fired last month from her $26,332-a-year job as a civilian clerk in the sheriff's office, where she accepted payment for deputies to serve civil papers for the Circuit Court, according to officials and the county auditor's report.

She worked as a temporary employee from January 1995 until she was hired full time on July 10, 1997 -- and the thefts are alleged to have started less than three weeks later. Her last day was April 7, county officials said.

The sheriff said Debra Johnson was so well thought of that two years ago she received the office's civilian of the year award.

"When this came to our attention, it just took us back several steps ..." he said.

Johnson's clerical duties included accepting and keeping track of cash, checks and money orders for the serving of civil lawsuit paperwork. Financial experts recommend dividing money-taking and financial record-keeping duties among workers to provide checks and balances.

A routine county audit of the sheriff's office this year pointed to cash missing from that account. Auditor Teresa Sutherland met with police and prosecutors in March to discuss her suspicions, starting the criminal investigation.

The audit, completed last month, faulted the office for sloppy cash-handling and inadequate record-keeping. The sheriff ended the practice of accepting cash, and separated money-handling and record-keeping duties so that one person cannot steal cash and cover it up.

The sheriff said he has since made several other changes recommended in the audit.

The audit examined cash receipts dating to October 2000, but Anne Arundel County Police Lt. Joseph Jordan said police went back further into archived records and questioned several people working in that office.

Employee theft has been a problem at other county offices in recent years, including the jail, landfill, state's attorney's office and Department of Public Works.

At the root of each was an employee with responsibility for handling money as well as keeping records on it, investigations showed.

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