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Editorial: Checks, balances a continual necessity

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The arrest of a former Jennings County Fair Board official on 33 counts of theft has taught that body a costly lesson about handling money and violating the public’s trust.

Investigators believe Amy K. Williams stole $40,000 in fair board funds during her three years as secretary-treasurer.

It’s the same type of unfortunate lesson that Jonesville and Clay Township in Bartholomew County learned with some of their officials.

The hope is other boards, nonprofits and governing bodies take a cue from these incidents and ensure that they have checks-and-balances systems in place so they don’t learn the hard way, too.

Melissa Schultheis, Jonesville’s former clerk-treasurer, admitted in court in 2008 that she had stolen thousands of dollars from the town during a seven-year period. During her February 2009 sentencing, she estimated the amount at $60,000 to $70,000.

In November 2013, former Clay Township Trustee Christa Acton and former Deputy Trustee Laurie Baker were arrested on multiple felony charges, including welfare fraud and theft. Many of the charges stem from irregularities in Acton approving $6,760 in township financial assistance to Baker, according to a probable-cause affidavit. Acton also used $1,000 of township funds for personal use, according to the affidavit. A tentative jury trial date of June 10 has been set for both Acton and Baker.

Previously, Acton came under fire for a 2011 State Board of Accounts audit that determined that from 2008 to 2010 she was overpaid by 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.

The actions of Williams, Schultheis, Acton and Baker show how much trust is placed in public officials and how easily that trust can be broken. The impact can be significant.

Clay Township has struggled to keep its fire protection services afloat and was penalized financially in 2012 by federal and state revenue agencies for not properly paying employees’ taxes. Jonesville’s town board eliminated municipal trash pickup and assumed the clerk-treasurer’s responsibilities because of its funding woes.

After learning she was being investigated, Williams attempted to cover her tracks by diverting more than $1,800 in property tax receipts into the fair board account through her job at the Jennings County auditor’s office, court

documents allege.

Jonesville and Clay Township officials have installed safeguards intended to prevent future misappropriation of funds. Jonesville now requires multiple signatures and accompanying paperwork for every purchase. Every Clay Township check now requires two signatures, and its advisory board has the ability to inspect the bank account that covers the township’s four funds.

You would like to think checks and balances would not be necessary by boards and governing bodies because the people entrusted to handle funds would do so carefully and honestly, but that’s a

fool’s assumption.

The lesson that’s been learned is that lack of financial safeguards can be costly.

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