Education

Beaufort County Schools bookkeeper charged with embezzling thousands from the district

Patricia Sams
Patricia Sams

A former bookkeeper at Lady’s Island Middle School, who passed the Beaufort County School District’s background check process despite a history of financial fraud, has been arrested and charged with embezzling approximately $4,500 from the district, according to police.

Patricia Sams, 36, was booked into the Beaufort County Detention Center on Friday evening and released the next morning. She was charged Monday with breach of trust with fraudulent intent of more than $2,000 but less than $10,000.

Sams, who was the primary guardian of the Lady’s Island Middle School credit card since August 2016, was not required to go through a comprehensive financial background or credit check during her hiring process.

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In the wake of the incident, which the district says is the first of its kind, administrators are working on adding more safeguards for the credit card program.

Tonya Crosby, the district’s chief financial officer, filed a report with the Beaufort Police Department on June 27 which accused an unnamed employee — later identified as Sams — of using a district-issued credit card after hours and on weekends to purchase food, alcohol and tobacco products.

Stephanie Karafa, an investigator at the police department, said the department’s investigation revealed that Sams used the card without authorization to make personal purchases totaling more than $2,000 at various locations across South Carolina between May and June 2018.

In a written statement provided to police, Sams said that her financial situation was bad and she made a “stupid” decision, according to the police report.

As of June 28, Sams is no longer employed by the district, said district spokesperson Jim Foster.

Although Sams worked at the district for nearly two years, only two months of her transactions had been reported to police for further investigation.

The district examines credit card transactions on a monthly basis. If any discrepancies are identified, such as in Sams’ case, the district goes back multiple months on that card to see if there are any further issues, according to Foster.

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‘Checked like any other employee’

Beaufort County School District assigns one credit card to each school and district office department for a total of 44 cards. During the 2017 fiscal year, about $30 million was charged to the cards.

A bookkeeper at each school keeps the card in her possession, maintains the transaction records and keeps tabs of the school’s expenditures and deposits, according to Foster.

In Sams’ case, Foster said the district’s “internal controls” alerted administrative staff to the unauthorized charges. He declined to further explain how the unauthorized purchases were discovered.

According to the police report made on June 27, a district administrator who oversees the credit card program notified Crosby of suspicious charges made on the Lady’s Island Middle School card from the Columbia area. Administrators then looked at Sams’ Facebook account, which indicated that she was in Columbia during the same time frame of the charges.

When the suspicious transactions were presented to Sams, she “admitted to making personal purchases on the school’s credit card,” according to the report.

“(Bookkeeping is) a vitally important position and it’s a position of trust, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t have a backup system in place to monitor the use of those cards,” Foster said.

Sams was hired as the bookkeeper at Lady’s Island Middle School in August 2016.

As of Jan. 1, 2018, she was earning a salary between $34,000 and $38,000.

Sams graduated from Hilton Head Christian Academy and went on to college for two years but did not complete a degree. Before she was hired by the district, she had most recently been employed as a server at Giuseppi’s in Bluffton, according to her school district application.

In 2011, she wrote on Facebook that she was starting her own “bookkeeping service and small business tax filing service.”

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In her post, she stated, “If there are any elderly people you might know that need check writing services and helping them keep their checkbook straight so as to maintain their independence, I will be happy to make house calls.”

When asked on her application if she had ever been arrested, charged or convicted of any type of criminal offenses, Sams marked “no.”

In December 2009, however, Sams was charged with check fraud and was subsequently fined $96, according to online Beaufort County court records.

The Beaufort County School District uses a service from the Background Investigation Bureau to conduct nationwide background checks on potential employees, which incorporate county, state and federal court records, an address history and name aliases.

Alice Walton, the district’s chief administrative and human resources officer, said the district then receives a document that states whether a potential candidate meets the district’s qualification criteria. Sams’ background check came back as “meets qualifications,” she said.

“When we look at every one of these applications, we look at the charges and make an assessment based on what it was, what the restitution was and make (a decision to hire) based on that,” Walton said.

The background-check process for a potential bookkeeper is no different from a teacher. Bookkeepers are not required to go through a credit check or any specific financial background check, she said.

In January 2017, about six months after starting her bookkeeper position at Lady’s Island Middle School, Sams was charged with possession of marijuana.

Three months later, in April 2017, she was sued by her rental company to vacate her rental property. But ultimately, she was not evicted, according to online court records.

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District to increase internal controls

Sams’ arrest comes less than a month after an outside audit, costing the district $63,000, examined the district’s spending and found no evidence of unauthorized charges made during the 2016-2017 school year.

Reed & Associates CPAs sampled 262 out of 28,000 transactions made from July 1, 2016, to June 30, 2017, and found that all of the purchases were properly supported by documentation and made using the district’s code. None of the purchases were unauthorized or made for personal reasons, according to the final report.

Foster said Sams’ case was “the first time we’re aware of a school district employee who has been accused of this type of violation.”

Still, according to Foster, the district is implementing additional internal controls to monitor the use of its 44 district credit cards.

For instance, the principal at each school is going to start receiving text alerts every time their school’s credit card is used.

The school district also is adding two new positions in its finance department for the 2018-2019 school year. The new employees will be in charge of handling the controls and auditing requirements for Title I, a federal program that provides funding to school districts based on the number of kids in poverty.

Therefore, those existing members of the district’s finance staff who used to focus on Title I can spend more time monitoring the district’s internal finances, including credit card transactions, Foster said.

The district also is evaluating the training system for school bookkeepers to see how it can be made more effective.

“We can’t guarantee that no district employee will ever violate district procedures, but we can make sure we have procedures in place that spot possible problems,” Foster said.

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