A crowd of nearly 50 people, made up of a cross section of the Stone County community, crowded the board room at the Wiggins Depot Monday for a meeting between the Stone County Economic Development Partnership Board of Directors, the Stone County Board of Supervisors and the City of Wiggins Board of Aldermen.
The supervisors and aldermen had recessed their respective semi-monthly meetings in order to take part in the meeting.
There were also approximately 15 concerned citizens on hand.
After opening the meeting with prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance, SCEDP board chairman Laura Owen offered a brief breakdown of the recent embezzlement scandal which rocked her organization when it came to light that executive secretary Tina Owens Gillespie had forged checks amounting to more than $300,000.
"When I took over as chairman, I never dreamed this would happen," Owen said. "I hope everyone can use this information to understand how it happened and take steps to prevent it from happening again."
Owen said the scandal was an abject lesson for any business or organization which must have some type of internal controls concerning finances.
She described several meetings; in one of which the executive committee found too many payments to cell phone and employee insurance companies and how those meetings led to her confronting Gillespie.
"On Tuesday, Nov. 20, I met with Tina for more than an hour," she said. "Tina was acting very nervous and I asked for the bank statements and she shouted, 'No!' and then told me the statements were at the office of Brent Tice, the partnership's accountant.
"I contacted Brent Tice and he told me his office did not have, and had never had, the bank statements."
Owen said she asked for the statements again on Nov. 26 and Gillespie said she'd give her the next month's statements; at which time Owen went directly to the bank for said statements.
After receiving the statements and conducting further investigation, Owen was informed on Dec. 3 that an EDP check had bounced.
She contacted executive director Jay Paul Gumm and, one hour later, Gumm called back and then arrived at a meeting and showed those in attendance a text message in which Gillespie allegedly admitted her wrongdoing.
Owen said the executive committee was then floored when Investigator Eddie Rogers of the Stone County Sheriff Department informed them of more than $100,000 in forged checks in the last year.
"He and the banks had known for two weeks," she said.
A freeze was then placed on all of the organization's accounts.
Even then, two more forged checks were presented at the bank.
Owen said Gillespie had manipulated accounting software to cover her trail and had been so good at it that an auditing firm had been duped.
A 2010 audit showed no problems, Owen said, even while 30 forged checks had been passed.
"Receiving a clean audit for 2009-2010 was devastating to the EDP," she said.
Gillespie then knew she had two more years before her activities would again be scrutinized.
"Our internal controls were not strong," Owen said. "We had one person writing checks, opening bank statements and reconciling those statements."
She said there were four things which needed to happen to insure cases of this nature do not occur.
All board members in the room at the same time.
All board members review financial statements.
All board members review bank statements.
All board members review signed checks which have cleared the bank.
"If any of those steps are not taken . . ." then an organization is ripe for an embezzlement of the type which the EDP suffered, she said.
A list of actions taken by the EDP was attached to the evening's agenda and Owen said that in addition to the list, additional steps had been taken.
An outside accounting firm had been hired.
A long-range planning committee had been convened.
A mission statement had been arrived at.
"It is our desire to open lines of communication and be more transparent," she said.
After the presentation, Owen opened the floor for questions and comments and asked those with questions to put written copies in a receptacle near the door before leaving.
The first question came from Ward 2 Alderman Gene Alexander.
He wanted to know if anything prevented the EDP from appointing outside people to committees such as the new long-range planning committee.
EDP board attorney Sean Courtney said he would look into the senate bill which created the EDP and determine whether it, or the organization's bylaws would allow such a move.
District 5 Supervisor Dale Bond asked what the organization's current cash balance was.
Treasurer Matthew Ware gave figures for operating, capital and non-public accounts totaling $102,357.67.
Porter Burke then asked if there were any possibility of recovering the embezzled funds.
"We have identified all forged checks and asked the banks for reimbursement," Owen replied. "They have hired an attorney and so have we."
Ron Dyal asked if the embezzled funds would be covered by a bonding agency and was told while the EDP board members and director had been bonded, the secretary/bookkeeper had not.
Bond then elaborated EDP income and major expenditures and asked for an explanation of where all moneys had been expended.
Owen said she had reviewed five years of financial statements and intended to review the remainder, but explained it was a time-consuming process.
"It took an accountant five days of eight hours to arrive at the answer for the five years of records we have," she said.
The EDP is waiting on five more years of expenditure records which are in storage.
District 1 Supervisor Joseph Davenport spoke of the difficulty in getting people to serve on the EDP board and said that resulted in rolling the same people in and out.
All in attendance who spoke called for more communication between all three boards and the general public as well and also seemed to agree that the past had to be put in the past while the entire community moved forward for the benefit of the county.
"If we can all be transparent and work together, there's no reason we can't make this work," said Alderman-at-Large Joel Miles.
Kim Wintzell, who has lived and done business in Stone County for several years since relocating from New Orleans, spoke passionately about the quality of life and hometown atmosphere she has experienced here and asked that the boards move forward and continue to promote the county as a great place to live, work and raise a family.
A more detailed report on reactions to the meeting will appear in next week's edition of the Enterprise.