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Trustee, deputy charged with welfare fraud, theft


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Laurie Baker
Laurie Baker

Christa Acton
Christa Acton


Two former Clay Township officials face multiple felony charges, including welfare fraud and theft, after completion of an investigation into financial irregularities of the trustee’s office.

Former Township Trustee Christa K. Acton, 42, 537 Della Road, and former Deputy Trustee Laurie L. Baker, 45, 505 Jewell St., were arrested Sunday at their homes, according to an Indiana State Police media release. Acton faces nine felony charges, and Baker faces 18.

A 2011 audit by the State Board of Accounts determined that, from 2008 through 2010, Acton was overpaid thousands of dollars; paid her husband’s mowing service unreasonable amounts of money; and generally did a poor job of keeping records and filing reports.

Following that report, Bartholomew County Prosecutor Bill Nash asked the state police to proceed with a criminal investigation.

Multiple charges stem from Acton approving township financial assistance to Baker, an employee in her office. A police probable-cause affidavit said that Acton approved $6,760 in township assistance to Baker from September 2008 through January 2011 and that Baker used the money for mortgage payments on her home.

As the trustee, Acton had a responsibility to investigate all requests for assistance, including collecting information about income benefits received by anyone within the household in the previous 30 days, the affidavit said.

However, Baker did not include on the form her salary from the trustee’s office and instead listed her monthly wages at $920, according to court documents.

Also, the applications for assistance lacked signatures by all adult members of the household, as required by law, and Baker sometimes forged the signature of her ex-husband, Stacy Baker, the

affidavit said.

Acton used $1,000 of township funds for personal use, also in violation of state law, the affidavit said.

She withdrew the money from the Clay Township bank account Feb. 20, 2009, and claimed she used the money to pay a legal retainer for township business. However, the investigation showed the money went to pay Acton’s personal legal fees, the affidavit said.

While Acton wrote a personal check a year later that appeared to indicate she had repaid the money, the check showed no markings that the amount was deposited into the township’s account, the affidavit stated.

Acton and Baker also did not file conflict-of-interest forms, as required by state law, when their current or former spouses were hired by the office to perform work. Acton hired her husband Paul’s company, PJ’s Mowing, to mow the township’s cemeteries in 2008, 2009 and 2010, the affidavit said.

Additionally, Stacy Baker was hired to perform snow removal for the township.

Laurie Baker was booked into the Bartholomew County Jail at 9:46 a.m. Sunday and released on bond at 12:37 p.m. that day. If convicted on all 18 counts, she could receive from 11 to 61 years in prison and be fined up to $180,000.

Acton was booked into jail at 10:34 a.m. Sunday and released on bond at 3:02 p.m. that day, jail officials said. If convicted on all counts, Acton could receive six to 32 years in prison and be fined up to $90,000.

Bond for both Acton and Baker was set at $35,000 surety or $3,500 cash.

Cynthia Crispin of Hancock County, who was appointed as a special prosecutor to determine charges against the Clay Township officials, said she only filed charges that “provided the strongest indication of criminal liability” against Acton and Baker.

“Not every indication of potential wrongdoing is a crime,” Crispin said.

“There were lots of instances where there might have been a breach of fiduciary duty, but we have to examine them closely to determine if it rises to the level of a specific offense under Indiana

statutes.”

Impact of actions

The impact of Acton’s actions have been felt in multiple ways, township officials said.

The township was penalized financially in 2012 by federal and state revenue agencies for not properly paying employees’ taxes.

The volunteer fire department has had a $40,000 annual contract to provide fire protection for the township’s nearly 3,300 residents.

Acton paid the department only $12,500 of its expected annual allocation in 2011 and only $11,567 in 2012. Those funds cover necessities such as insurance, fuel, equipment and maintenance. Extensive fundraising efforts and support by residents have helped the fire department stay afloat.

Acton resigned under pressure as trustee in May 2012. Becky Smith, a retired sheriff’s deputy, replaced Acton as trustee the following month. Smith said Monday that she is glad to see the situation being resolved.

One of the biggest roadblocks Smith said she had to overcome when she took office was dealing with Acton’s poor record-keeping, as cited in the state audit.

“How could you find anything in your office if you had boxes sitting everywhere?” she said. “Where would you begin to look if you had to go back and research stuff or do your annual report?”

Mike Champlin, president of the township advisory board, said that the arrests do not end the township’s financial problems caused during Acton’s

tenure.

“The township is still in financial trouble,” Champlin said. “We are still wrestling with the remnants of the things that were wrong. We are still fighting with the IRS, who says we owe $20,000 in back taxes that were never paid.”

Champlin said the larger problems were caused by Acton’s failure to file budgets with the state, which led to the township repeatedly being locked into previous year’s budget amounts.

Champlin said that the township subsequently enacted several measures to prevent the types of abuses that Acton and Baker are accused of making. Those include requiring two signatures authorizing all township checks, giving more than a single person access to oversee the accounts, creating tighter rules on township assistance and an annual assistance limit of $500.

The township board members also have given up their salaries due to the ongoing financial problems.

Champlin said that once the new trustee and board were able to access the accounts, they found that 70 percent of the township aid money was going to a handful of people, including Baker.

Barb Hackman, chairwoman of the Bartholomew County Republican Party and county auditor, said that new elected officials are given the chance to attend training by the state on ethical issues and how to properly run their offices’ finances.

“Some of it is just common sense that you just have to use,” Hackman said. “And it is not your money. That is what gets them in trouble.”

What are the charges?

Formal charges filed against former Clay Township Trustee

Christa Acton:

One count of welfare fraud as a Class C felony.

One count of welfare fraud as a Class D felony.

Three counts of theft, all Class D felonies.

Three counts of conflict of interest, all Class D felonies.

One count of official misconduct as a Class D felony.

Formal charges filed against former Clay Township Deputy Trustee Laurie Baker:

Two counts of forgery, both Class C felonies.

One count of welfare fraud as a Class C felony.

One count of welfare fraud as a Class D felony.

Nine counts of perjury, all Class D felonies,

Three counts of conflict of interest, all Class D felonies.

Two counts of theft, both Class D felonies.

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