Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The mystery of Merriam's missing Municipal Court money

Posted By on Wed, Jul 3, 2013 at 8:43 AM

Ex-Merriam court clerk Fabiola Cruz is suing the city and others.
  • Ex-Merriam court clerk Fabiola Cruz is suing the city and others.
Merriam Municipal Court clerk Fabiola Cruz was arrested June 27, 2011, for allegedly embezzling from the public trust.

The Johnson County District Attorney's Office issued a press release announcing that the 35-year-old Cruz was tagged with five felony charges: one for stealing more than $100,000 and the other four for computer crimes. However, the charges were quietly dropped before a scheduled preliminary hearing, and the case was closed June 4, 2012.

Now Cruz is suing Merriam and several of its employees, including the city administrator and the police chief.

First, some history. Cruz, who immigrated from Mexico in 1988 and became a naturalized U.S. citizen, started working for Merriam in 2002. In her lawsuit, she claims that she had a clean personnel file and never ran into trouble at work. That was, until September 1, 2010, when she was summoned to a meeting with Merriam's city administrator, Phil Lammers, and its human resources director, Karen Kline.

Lammers and Kline had questions about whether she was stealing company time. They asked Cruz to prove that she had worked full days on the dates in question or to resign by the end of the week. So Cruz resigned in September 2010, and nothing seemed to happen until April 2011.

That's when city officials began investigating missing Municipal Court funds - mostly court fines - with an eye toward Cruz as the culprit.

City and police officials paid Cruz a visit at her home to ask about more than $300,000 that had gone unaccounted for from the Municipal Court, dating back to 2007. Then a funny thing happened. Cruz's lawyer asked for evidence showing that his client was in the wrong.

Instead of providing computer codes, payment-by-type records, ledgers and bank statements, the city produced self-made journal entries showing the money that was supposedly missing and statements from Cruz's co-workers that she was living beyond her means.

Merriam either botched the evidence against Cruz or never had it to begin with. Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe seemingly had little choice but to boot the charges.

"What I can say is, the city's tracking-system problems made it impossible for us to move forward with the prosecution," Howe tells The Pitch.

Lammers parrots Howe.

"I think he believed that because the record-keeping process we had could be compromised - those aren't his words, [they're] mine - he chose not to prosecute," Lammers says.

But Lammers still believes that the money went somewhere.

"It appeared that there was money missing," Lammers says.

The city's insurance company seems to have agreed. Travelers Insurance cut a $250,000 check, the policy limit, for the employee-fidelity claim after reviewing the city's audit and the insurance company's own forensic audit.

Cruz wouldn't speak without her attorney's permission; lawyer Brian McCallister did not return several calls from The Pitch to discuss his client's case.

Cruz spent a year out on bond before charges were dropped. No one else has been popped for the same crime.

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