Ex-accountant for county in Arkansas to repay $1M stolen from travel fund

FAYETTEVILLE -- A former accountant for Benton County pleaded guilty in federal court Thursday to stealing money from the county travel fund and agreed to repay $1 million.

Connie Guild, 52, of Gravette was the county's senior accounting specialist and the custodian of the travel fund until she was fired Sept. 7.

She waived indictment, was arraigned and pleaded guilty Thursday morning. The process typically takes several months. She is free on $5,000 unsecured bond and can't leave the area until her sentencing hearing, which has not been set.

Guild agreed to repay or forfeit assets amounting to $1,033,762, according to her plea agreement.

She started work for the county in 2000 and began taking money by submitting false claims in 2007, according to her plea agreement.

Guild would post "additional undocumented disbursement" to legitimate travel claims, according to auditors. Most of the undocumented disbursements were attributed to fuel costs "and resulted in the county treasurer issuing a check to the travel fund for significantly more than the legitimate, documented travel expenses."

The check issued to the travel fund would be cashed, and Guild would replenish the travel fund for the legitimate, documented travel expenses, "leaving the undocumented cash balance unaccounted for."

The travel fund consisted of cash kept in a safe in the accounting department and used as advance money for employees who traveled on county business, according to the plea agreement.

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Guild pleaded guilty to two counts Thursday. They include theft concerning programs that receive federal money and filing a false income tax return. Benton County receives federal money in various forms, according to the plea agreement.

"The defendant filed personal federal income tax returns for the years 2007 through 2015 reporting wages from Benton County," according to the plea agreement. "The defendant did not report the income she embezzled from Benton County during those years."

The government is entitled to the forfeiture of any property or other assets belonging to Guild up to the value of the $1 million judgment against her, according to the forfeiture agreement. Substitute property belonging to Guild is appropriate for forfeiture if the actual proceeds of the theft cannot be located, it says.

Guild faces up to 10 years in prison and fines of up to $250,000 on the theft conviction and up to three years in prison and fines of up to $100,000 on the false tax return conviction.

The investigation was conducted by the Internal Revenue Service and the FBI. U.S. District Judge Tim Brooks presided over the plea hearing.

Benton County Judge Barry Moehring said the county will continue its effort to improve its accounting procedures to avoid a recurrence of theft. The Legislative Audit's report regarding the county's 2015 budget said the thefts "resulted from internal control deficiencies."

Moehring and Comptroller Brenda Guenther have briefed the county Finance Committee on several actions taken to tighten financial controls. The travel cash fund has been eliminated, and policies have been reviewed and updated to require greater segregation of duties and improve oversight and review. The county also will hire a firm to do a risk assessment to recommend more changes, Moehring has said.

Other changes discussed include taking an inventory of all county assets valued at $5,000 or more and changes to the use of credit and purchase cards.

Metro on 04/14/2017