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Thursday, April 6, 2017 12:07 am

Lax procedures allow theft

CMS employee pocketed money orders

 When purchasers of surplus state property showed up with money orders at the Central Management Services warehouse on South 10 1/2 Street, Ashleigh E. Watson, office administrator, was eager to help. At least once, she even took over in mid-transaction for another employee without being asked.

Watson, it turned out, was pocketing money orders, bilking taxpayers even as she processed invoices for purchased goods that made it easy for police to prove their case by comparing invoices against monies received. She pleaded guilty to felony theft and was fired in December from her job that paid more than $54,000 per year. Both she and the CMS supervisor who discovered the thefts told police the caper was enabled by lax procedures and years of mismanagement.

Watson was given money orders by people who had bought vehicles and other surplus property via the state’s online iBid website and left the money orders blank, according to police reports. Between June and December of 2015, Watson received 28 money orders in amounts ranging from $8.25 to $1,000, according to state police who got a search warrant for her bank account. Nearly $7,200 that was missing from state coffers was instead deposited in either Watson’s bank account or an account belonging to her husband, who was a manager at the CMS warehouse. Investigators identified more than $5,000 in additional “suspicious money order transactions,” according to police reports.

After the thefts came to light, CMS officials found that Watson had been storing personal property at the state warehouse for nine years. Based on rental fees for storage units in Springfield, Watson received nearly $6,000 worth of free storage, the state calculated. After pleading guilty, she was given probation and a restitution order totaling $13,225. Jeffrey Watson, her husband, wasn’t charged with a crime, but was suspended for 15 days, and transferred to a different job in CMS. According to police reports, $320 stolen from the state was deposited in his bank account. Ashleigh Watson took the blame, saying that she’d forged her husband’s signature and deposited the money without his knowledge. Jeffrey Watson told police he had no idea that his wife had been stealing from the state.

The theft was discovered after Mark Miller, who had never before worked for CMS, started working as a manager for the agency’s surplus property division. Miller began his duties in July 2015.

“Miller inherited an office that had been mismanaged for years under (a) previous administration and needed a lot of work to correct problems,” a state police investigator wrote. Ashleigh Watson agreed, telling police that the CMS invoice system “had a lot of flaws.”

Miller grew suspicious after finding that the state hadn’t received $1,320 for two surplus Ford Crown Victorias purchased in December 2015. The purchaser, a retired police officer, told CMS that he used blank money orders to buy the cars. He said he’d purchased vehicles in the past on the iBid website and had always left the money orders blank because he didn’t want to make a mistake that would force him to get new money orders. He also told investigators that he’d witnessed others making transactions with money orders, and other buyers rarely filled out money orders. He also said that he had once seen Ashleigh Watson take over for another employee during a transaction that involved a money order. He said he didn’t find it unusual at the time, but Watson had put her own name as the payee on one money order and her husband’s on the other before depositing funds in her bank account and one belonging to her husband.

Investigators found that Ashleigh Watson had also forged the signature of her deceased father as the payer on stolen money orders. She told police that her husband had no knowledge of the thefts. Jeffrey Watson also told police that he had no idea that his wife was stealing money.

It wasn’t the first time that Ashleigh Watson had gotten in trouble for mishandling surplus state property. In 2014 she was reprimanded after the state treasurer’s office found that she had failed to list more than 100 items that the treasurer’s office had submitted for listing on the state iBid online auction site. There was no evidence, however, that she had stolen any of the items.

Central Management Services also had difficulty accounting for vehicles, according to state police reports. During the 2016 investigation, Miller told investigators that he was trying to locate approximately 36 vehicles that the agency had lost track of while Jeffrey Watson held a position as vehicle coordinator. Police reported that Miller had no proof of wrongdoing, and Watson told police that 17 of the missing vehicles had been located and that many had been loaned to the Department of Agriculture. He also said that he didn’t believe that it was his job to keep track of the vehicles, but he did say that he had signed documents stating that vehicles were at specific locations without verifying whether that was true.

While not being charged with any crimes, Jeffrey Watson told police that CMS had changed procedures so that agencies with surplus vehicles weren’t required to bring them to Springfield to be auctioned. Instead, they were auctioned on the iBid website while being kept in various locations around the state, which made it difficult to keep track of them, Watson said.

CMS officials did not respond to a request for comment.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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