KNOX – Hundreds of thousands of dollars are missing from Starke County and County Commissioners fired the treasurer and two deputy treasurers this week. But was it bad behavior or a case of bad bookkeeping?
A 2009 state audit shows $636,618 missing from that year and Commissioners are projecting at least $300,000 more will come up missing from 2010. County Commission President Dan Bridegroom said so far it appears to be a case of bad bookkeeping, but he also said he’s not ruling anything out.
Bridegroom said he first noticed discrepancies in Treasurer Linda Belork’s reports back in July 2009 – six months after Belork took office.
“And the discrepancies were starting to get a little wider and a little wider [as time went on],” he added.
Since that 2009 audit, the county auditor, a state auditor and commissioners tried to sort it all out but couldn’t. They haven’t been able to get a figure from the legers because there were so many corrections and changes within the documents.
When asked why two deputy treasurers were fired alongside Belork, Commissioner Bridegroom compared it to a crime scene investigation.
“[If] the police department goes to a crime scene, the first thing they want to do is make sure everything inside that place is contained and nothing can be changed, nothing can be moved, nothing can be added to or subtracted from,” he explained.
The county also issued a temporary restraining order against Belork – denying her access to anything in the Treasurer’s office – including bank accounts and ledgers. But it’s unclear if she took the money or if it’s simply mismanagement of funds.
There is not a criminal investigation into the missing money at this point, Bridegroom said.
But the effects of the missing money have been far-reaching. The county had to freeze all of its own bank accounts as part of the process of removing Belork from office, but all county workers were paid Friday.
State law makes it legal for county commissioners to fire another elected official, but the process to do so is lengthy. Under that law, the elected official in question must be sued. Bridegroom told WSBT the lawsuit filed against the Belork and her bond agency is basically just policy and procedure and is the only way the county could officially put a stop to what he’s calling a mismanagement of money.
But Starke County taxpayers and voters who elected Belork as county treasurer – the person who collects and oversees all county money – still have more questions than answers about why she was removed from her position.
“[I want to know] exactly how they discovered the discrepancies and how long it’s gonna take to get to the bottom of them,” said Starke County resident Dolores Surfase. “If she’s guilty, what did she do with it?”
“That’s a lot of money to mismanage,” added Starke County resident Dolores Smith. “I don’t think it was an accident.”
The Commission instated an interim treasurer, but Belork isn't officially out of office. The lawsuit the county filed is just the first step and she could technically appeal it if she wants to. If all goes as planned, the Democratic Party will hold a party caucus to choose the next county treasurer.