Beaufort Co. bookkeeper accused of stealing thousands from school district pleads guilty

Lady’s Island Middle School bookkeeper Patricia Sams, who was accused of embezzling $4,500 last year from the school, was sentenced to two years probation last month in lieu of a three-year jail sentence after pleading guilty to a breach of trust with fraudulent intent, according to online Beaufort County court records.

Police reports, receipts and security photos obtained by The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette from the 14th Circuit Solicitor’s Office show Sams buying snack food, Publix deli items, groceries, wine, cigarettes, compressed air cans, soda, gas and gift cards with the middle school’s credit card between May and June 2018.

“My financial situation was bad, and I made the stupid decision to use the card not for business use,” Sams wrote in a statement to police last June.

District chief financial officer Tonya Crosby had initially estimated that Sams embezzled $4,500 from the district during an investigation that took place from late June to late July 2018. However, Sams was ultimately charged with embezzling $2,250.

At the time of her arrest in July 2018, Sams had been the primary custodian of the school’s credit card — also called a P-Card — since her hiring in August 2016, according to previous reporting by the Packet and the Gazette.

She passed the district’s background check, despite a 2009 charge of check fraud and did not undergo any specific financial check or credit check, according to earlier reporting.

Bookkeepers participate in the same background checks as teachers in the district, district chief human resources officer Alice Walton told the Packet and the Gazette after Sam’s arrest.

When asked if she had prior arrests, charges or convictions on her application, Sams marked “no,” according to her personnel file.

After her hiring, Sams was charged with possession of marijuana in January 2017 and sued by her rental company to vacate her property in April 2017, according to court records. She was not ultimately evicted.

Sams’ arrest came less than a month after an outside audit of district spending that cost $63,000 and came up clean. Reed & Associates CPAs examined 262 of the district’s 28,000 transactions from 2016-17.

At the time of Sams’ arrest, district spokesman Jim 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.”

The district implemented stricter controls on its 44 credit cards after the arrest, including text alerts sent to principals every time a school credit card is used.

“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 to the Packet and the Gazette at the time.

Foster said Wednesday the district’s only direct loss from the embezzlement was their $1,000 insurance deductible, which they expect to be reimbursed for.

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Rachel Jones covers education for the Island Packet and the Beaufort Gazette. She attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and has worked for the Daily Tar Heel and Charlotte Observer. Rachel grew up in Ayden, NC, surrounded by teachers.