Former Connell councilwoman accused of stealing from cemetery district

Tri-City HeraldJanuary 21, 2014 

Monica Pruett mug

Monica Pruett

BOB BRAWDY — Tri-City Herald Buy Photo

A former Connell city councilwoman serving prison time for embezzling $160,000 from a Mesa farm stole tens of thousands more from a public cemetery district, the state auditor’s office said.

Monica Pruett allegedly misappropriated $21,135 from Franklin County Cemetery District No. 2, where she served as business manager from 2004 to 2012, according to an audit report released Tuesday.

She also received another $32,350 in “questionable” compensation, the audit report said.

“Questionable means we can’t really nail it down,” auditor’s office spokesman Thomas Shapley said. “We can’t confirm that something was misappropriated or misused. When we say misappropriated, we have a trail there.”

Pruett allegedly failed to deposit $14,025 from plot sales and $5,010 from fees for digging and closing up gravesites, the audit report said. Another $2,100 went toward payments to her private business.

Pruett was sentenced in November to two years in prison after pleading guilty to first-degree theft in the Mesa case. A charge of money laundering was dismissed as part of the plea deal.

She was ordered to repay $160,142 to Bill Swensen, owner of D&S Farms, for thefts occurring between June 2005 and April 2012. She had provided bookkeeping and accounting services for the farm through her Connell-based business, Lierman Business Services.

She was hired in 2004 as the cemetery district’s business manager on a contract basis at an initial rate of $150 a month, the audit report said. Former cemetery commissioner Toby Cochran reported the district’s losses to the auditor’s office in July 2012 after learning Pruett took money from the farm, Shapley said.

Cochran could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Pruett’s job required her to sell plots at Mountain View Cemetery in Connell, give receipts to customers, record sales in the district log book and record all revenue with the Franklin County treasurer, the audit report said. Between January 2004 and June 2012, when her contract was terminated, $17,975 was recorded in plot sales, but only $3,950 was deposited with the county — a discrepancy of $14,025.

The district should have collected another $12,920 in fees from its charges to open and close gravesites after buying heavy equipment in 2009, the audit report said. But it doesn’t have records of at least $5,010 that should have been deposited in the bank to go toward a loan to pay for the equipment.

The $2,100 payment to Pruett’s business was inappropriate because she had said in a county document that the company financed rental homes, which is not a business purpose of the cemetery district, the audit report said.

The cemetery district paid Pruett $30,250 for which board approval could not be found in commission meeting minutes, the audit report said. The auditor’s office couldn’t determine if more money was taken because of missing public records, the audit report said.

Pruett walked out of an October 2013 interview with auditors after she was asked about the discrepancy between the amount of money approved in board minutes and the amount that was paid to her business, the audit report said.

The Franklin County Prosecutor’s Office has been notified of the case, the audit report said. Prosecutor Shawn Sant could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Franklin County Sheriff Richard Lathim disputed the audit report’s claim that his office declined to investigate the allegation after the cemetery district filed a report.

The sheriff’s office was not notified of the specific allegations involving the cemetery district until the report was released Tuesday, Lathim told the Herald.

“We did our job and investigated what we could, and she’s in prison as a result of that today,” he said. “They never would have gotten a call (about the cemetery) if not for us.”

The audit report faults the cemetery district for “control weaknesses,” including allowing the business manager to have all district records, letting her mix district money with money from her private business, and not making sure receipts were given for cash received.

The district should have had a written agreement in place with Pruett giving clear rates to be paid, the audit report said.

The district should strengthen its controls over its spending and cash receivables, while also making sure it follows state law for public records preservation and retention, the audit report said.

The audit report also recommends the district seek to recover the stolen and questionable money from Pruett, as well as the $3,762 it was charged for the investigation by the auditor’s office.

The district is seeking money from Pruett’s insurance carrier, as well as its own, and may sue if it doesn’t get the money back, the audit report said. The district has made several improvements to its oversight, the audit report said. It has put in place contracts for its current business manager and maintenance services, instituted processes for issuing receipts and depositing money, and will conduct annual inventories of public records and equipment.

-- Geoff Folsom: 509-582-1543; gfolsom@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @GeoffFolsom

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