BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — An audit conducted by the Erie County Comptroller’s Office has uncovered over $101,000 missing from the Clerk’s Office. The discovery builds upon roughly $13,000 that was already confirmed unaccounted for.
The original $13,670.15 in cash discrepancies from January and December 2022, which were described in an audit report filed on June 30 and confirmed, are currently under investigation by the Erie County Sheriff’s Department and the State Comptroller’s Office.
The additional $101,045.60 unaccounted for was discovered while looking into the remaining months of 2022, as well as the first six months of this year.
Through an analysis, the comptroller’s office confirmed that at least 83 government documents were tampered with in some form during January and December 2022. The audit said that 54 daily fee deposit reports for each day in question were altered, with the original monetary amounts manually removed and replaced with a similar, but not exact, font.
“There’s a lot going on there and there’s no question this is not sloppy bookkeeping it is someone willfully taking money from the clerk’s office,” Comptroller Kevin Hardwick told News 4. “Whoever is doing this is still on the county payroll, drawing a county paycheck. That’s wrong.”
Additionally, 29 deposit tickets, which are used to confirm amounts deposited into the bank, were found to have been swapped out and replaced, as well as lacking a unique notation from a cashier, during the same period.
The audit stated that it was unable to rule out the possibility of theft for any of the reviewed transactions and that it’s possible one or more individuals within the Clerk’s Office altered or attempted to alter official government documents after the audit for the original $13,000 had commenced.
“After that gets put in the bag and everyone disappears, someone takes it out of the bag, takes the cash or some of the cash, makes out a new deposit ticket subtracting that cash from it and that’s what goes to the bank,” Hardwick said.
The Comptroller’s Office also called on the Sheriff’s Office to investigate the additional $101,000 missing.
Criminal defense attorney Barry Covert says these are serious crimes and rise to the level of a felony charge.
“The amounts of money that are involved rise to the felony level, easily, as well as the filing of false business documents that allowed them to do this would also rise to the level of a felony if they filed false business records in order to cover up a crime,” Covert explained.
Erie County Clerk Michael Kearns said he has “grave concerns” regarding the Comptroller’s Office “disclosing information pertaining to an ongoing investigation.”
“This public disclosure has potentially jeopardized months of legitimate investigative work by both the Erie County Sheriff and District Attorney,” Kearns said in a statement. “I have the utmost confidence in law enforcement and their abilities to conduct a thorough examination of the facts.”
Erie County Sheriff John Garcia lambasted the Comptroller’s office for releasing the results of the audit while the investigation remained ongoing.
“I am astonished that Comptroller Hardwick would share information relevant to an open and ongoing investigation. I am not alone in stating that to do so is totally inappropriate,” Garcia said. “He is obviously unfamiliar with the rules of evidence. Furthermore, he and members of his office will be reminded that they are witnesses in this case.”
Hardwick responded to Garcia’s criticism, saying the Sheriff’s Office has had the case for weeks and this discovery only expands upon the initial audit released in June.
“He’s had this case for two months now and he did not complain when we put out the audit which contained much of the same type of evidence that is in this current update,” Hardwick said.
He added there could be even more money missing. His office is auditing several divisions within the clerk’s office and will have more on those investigations soon. His goal is to sure up processes at the clerk’s office to ensure the money is handled correctly.
“An audit should find the problems and correct them and I think that’s what we are committed to doing and I think the clerk’s office is committed to doing that too,” Hardwick explained.
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Tara Lynch is a Buffalo native and Emmy nominated reporter who joined the News 4 team in 2022. She previously worked at WETM in Elmira, N.Y., a sister station of News 4. You can follow Tara on Facebook and Twitter and find more of her work here.