Conservation group alters routine to prevent more thefts

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 12, 2003

[12/12/03]A Vicksburg-based environmental organization that lost $637,855 in embezzled federal funds now has controls in place to prevent similar thefts in the future, officials said.

The money was pilfered from the Lower Mississippi River Conservation Committee between Sept. 15, 1998, and March 24, 2003. The LMRCC is staffed by Vicksburg-based employees of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

One of them, Debra P. Strickland, 45, also served as the LMRCC treasurer. She pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in August to the embezzlement. Two weeks ago she was ordered to serve 33 months in a federal prison and make monthly restitution payments of $500.

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The theft remained undetected for as long as it did because there was no separation of financial duties within the LMRCC, said Paul Okerburg, special agent in charge of investigations for the eastern region of the U.S. Department of the Interior inspector general’s office.

“That’s Accounting 101,” Okerburg said. “You can’t have a signatory also handling all bank statements and deposits and reconciling bank statements.”

Strickland also falsified annual reports to the LMRCC during that time, Okerburg said.

The money that was embezzled was mainly from two multi-year federal grants that were to have gone to pay private landowners in Mississippi for wildlife-habitat protection and other natural-resource-related projects. One was from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service for about $733,000 and the other was from the Environmental Protection Agency for about $243,000.

The money came to the LMRCC in annual payments that were part of a cooperative agreement with the LMRCC, Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Christine Eustis said.

Phil Bass, the LMRCC’s current chairman, said most of the grant money was to be deposited into committee accounts as part of a cooperative agreement between it and the Fish & Wildlife Service. It was to be held in reserve.

“If the Fish & Wildlife Service would give it to another organization, it would no longer be U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service money,” Bass said. The arrangement amounted to “parking funds (with the LMRCC) until final payment was made” to the private landowners, Bass added.

All financial commitments the LMRCC made to private landowners were fulfilled during the time the money was being embezzled.

The chairmanship of the LMRCC rotates annually among its 11 member agencies. All of them are agencies of states along the lower Mississippi River. Bass also works with the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality.

An Atlanta-based Fish & Wildlife Service spokesman said she could not confirm the arrangement Bass described.

“We would provide money to the LMRCC for special projects,” she said. “It was not for them to hold.”

Vicksburg-based U.S. Fish & Wildlife biologist Ron Nassar has served as the LMRCC coordinator since its founding in 1994. Strickland reported to him in her roles with both the LMRCC and the Fish & Wildlife service for much of her tenure there.

Strickland “realized she was in trouble, and she came to us,” Okerburg said of how the embezzlement was discovered. Strickland was allowed to resign from her former post, Eustis said.

During the summer of 2002, Strickland was transferred from Nassar’s supervision to that of another Vicksburg Fish & Wildlife office employee, Charles Baxter. He did not return telephone calls.

The Vicksburg U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service staff reports to Atlanta-based managers.

“There is disciplinary action being taken” against one or both of Strickland’s former supervisors here, Eustis said. She added that she could not say what the disciplinary action was or would be.

“Of course we take very seriously our responsibility to spend federal money appropriately,” she said.

Okerburg said his office described for Fish & Wildlife Service management “areas within the department that need immediate attention.” He added that the inspector general’s office made four or five recommendations on matters including internal controls.

“They implemented all those,” he said.

Bass said he was not on the LMRCC when the decision was made to allow one employee, Strickland, to handle all the accounting duties.

“We were guilty of trusting a sister employee too much,” he said.

The LMRCC had considered hiring an outside accounting firm to audit its finances but decided against it for budget reasons, he said.

The Vicksburg accounting firm May & Company has now been hired to handle the LMRCC’s financial matters, Bass said. The firm will report directly to the committee, and no LMRCC checks will be written without approval from committee members themselves, he said.

Strickland, who was described as having a gambling addiction, was ordered to pay restitution at $500 per month. To complete repayment at that rate would take 106 years.