November 4, 2012

City clerk’s theft leaves small town Thayer in big-time pinch

Tony Vining asked Laura Whittley to come to City Hall.

Tony Vining asked Laura Whittley to come to City Hall.

“They’ve found some discrepancies,” the mayor told the city clerk of Thayer, a town of 500 people two hours east of Wichita where blackjack oaks and hills hint of the Ozarks.

The city’s books didn’t add up, and money was missing.

“I’m going to have to suspend you at this time,” Vining told Whittley.

Whittley cried and told him she didn’t do it, Vining said.

More than a year later, the town of Thayer is beyond broke.

It can’t afford to fill potholes in its streets, take care of dilapidated lots or water the school’s football field. Vining looks at the town he moved to from Los Angeles when he was in junior high school in a different light now: How much will that cost if it breaks?

In part to make up for what Whittley admitted in a plea agreement, the town has raised its mill levy and hiked water rates twice. In April, voters will consider a sales tax increase.

The town’s new city clerk works part time because Thayer couldn’t afford a full-time employee in that job.

On Jan. 1, Whittley will go to prison for a year and one day for stealing $120,000 from the people who flipped and bought hamburgers to help raise money for her when she was burned in a fire.

The shell game

A U.S. District Court judge sentenced Whittley in Wichita late last month and ordered her to pay back the money without interest.

The case against her initially was filed in Neosho County District Court, where she faced more than 100 charges.

After she gets out of prison, she’ll be on probation for a year. She won’t be able to make any charges on a credit card or open new lines of credit without first asking her probation officer.

She won’t be able to have a job that gives her discretionary authority over money unless her probation officer gives his approval.

The 50-year-old wife, mother and grandmother pleaded guilty earlier this year to bank fraud and money laundering, fancy legal terms for pocketing the cash that people such as 71-year-old Marge Laverty used to pay their water bills, for stealing money from municipal court payments and fees for hunting licenses, for using the city’s Walmart charge card to buy diapers for her grandchildren and for cutting paychecks to herself she didn’t earn.

After a bad storm, Whittley faked bills for cleanup work paid in part by money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. She then tried to cover everything up by writing a bad letter to the bank to get half of the town’s $100,000 CD to put in the city’s bank account so no one would notice that money was missing.

She continued the shell game the next year.

Vining, an Iraq veteran who also fights fires of the literal kind as a volunteer firefighter, hasn’t talked to Whittley since the city council cut her loose. Whittley, reached in person at her home, declined comment for this story.

“I went to school with her,” Vining said. “She was a grade ahead of me. I guess I just told you how old I am.”

In a town about the size of the student population at Wichita’s Marshall Middle School, it’s impossible for the townspeople who feel a sense of betrayal to not run into Whittley or members of her family. They see her at the Walmart in Chanute and sometimes call Vining when they do, complaining about what she’s buying or that she’s out driving her Corvette again.

At the same time, people in town have told their children to not pick on Whittley’s grandchildren because they didn’t do anything wrong.

“Let’s talk about something else for a minute,” Vining told a reporter Wednesday at Big Ed’s Steak House, one of the town’s three restaurants, after Whittley’s stepson pulled up a chair at a nearby table. “This might get uncomfortable.”

Audit’s results

Thayer hadn’t undergone an audit in a long time, since 2000. Too long, some members of the council felt.

KyAnne Phillips, by far the youngest City Council member at 28, pushed for one. So did Vining. But looking at the books kept getting pushed to the back burner.

“Some of the council members felt there was something not right,” Vining said.

People who had forgotten to pay their water bills, and then went to pay them, were told that their accounts were already marked paid. There wasn’t money when the fire chief needed something.

Then, last year, some new members joined the council, and the group voted in May 2011 to go under the microscope.

The town put an audit out for bid but never got a response. In June, the council put it out for bid again. A Chanute firm responded, and the council approved the contract in July 2011.

The firm warned that audits only catch 8 percent of wrongdoing, Vining said.

At 4 p.m. July 28, 2011, the auditors called Vining. Vining still remembers what time it was, but he had to check records to remember the exact day.

He went to their office in Chanute.

“ ‘Remember that 8 percent?’ ” Vining said the auditors told him.

“I just put my head down,” Vining said. “They laid out all the deficiencies.”

Vining got out of that meeting and called Neosho Sheriff Jim Keath.

The next day, Vining called officials with the Kansas League of Municipalities for guidance. They told him he couldn’t fire Whittley because her position was appointed and “the only way to be terminated was through the council.”

Vining said he told the sheriff he wanted a full investigation. He said he told Keath he didn’t care where the trail of deceit led, he just wanted to know who did what.

On Aug. 1, 2011, at a special meeting, the sheriff and auditors presented evidence to the council that Whittley was a thief. They fired her.

Whittley didn’t come to the meeting.

‘You’re broke’

A mayor and city council of five people run Thayer, the only town directly situated on U.S. 169 between Tulsa and Kansas City.

People honk to greet each other on the streets, and Vining, mayor since April 2011, calls people by their first names after using courtesy titles such as “Miss” or “Mister.” He said he knows pretty much every one of the 114 children who go to the town’s K-8 school.

Now he’s worried about providing for their futures.

When a water main broke, all he could think about was “How much is this going to cost?”

A fire hydrant near Laverty’s 169 Cafe needs a new stem. Until there’s money to replace the part, the hydrant is covered by a barrel that’s painted like a watermelon.

Craig Bagshaw, the principal at Thayer’s school, is worried about staying on top of maintenance.

As part of a deal to keep its K-8 school, Thayer provides the school water. But it didn’t have enough to water the football field. Some folks in the community stepped up and paid the bill.

“The people in this community do a great job of looking out for each other,” Bagshaw said.

Four lots in town need to be condemned. But Thayer hasn’t taken action because if it did, the property would become the town’s, “and what are we going to do? Write ourselves tickets?” Vining asked on the porch of city council president Phil Brownlee’s sprawling home.

Brownlee is a former mayor and a retired pastor.

He had suspected something was wrong at City Hall.

“City services were really very poor,” he said. “Our street work was beginning to get shoddy. There was no supervision and no money.”

The city has carried debt over from last year to this year.

“It’s almost the effect of living paycheck to paycheck,” Vining said. “When I met with those auditors, they flat said, ‘You’re broke.’ ”

Different perspectives

Laverty owns the 169 Cafe and the town’s car wash. She’s lived in the area for 33 years.

Laverty always paid her water bills in cash. She thought that money was going to Thayer.

“But she took my money and put it in her pocket,” Laverty said of Whittley.

Laverty has known Whittley and her husband, Stan, for years.

“They used to be in here every weekend, but since this took place, they haven’t opened the door,” she said.

But Laverty said she didn’t go to the court hearings because if she had, “I might as well close my doors.”

Members of Whittley’s extended family still eat at her cafe, she said.

Laverty remembers when Whittley got hurt in a fire. She said she and the other restaurant owners in town closed their businesses to cook for a fundraiser.

“And this is how you did us,” Laverty said of Whittley.

Some people wrote the judge letters on behalf of Whittley, asking for leniency.

“I know Laura to be a hard worker and a generous and helpful friend,” wrote Carol Hatfield, who identified herself as a certified shorthand reporter. “In her years as city clerk, she spent many hours in the hot sun on a mower, helping the city employees to keep our city looking pristine.”

One of Whittley’s nephews, Luke Thornton, who lives in Anthony, wrote that Whittley “has been a tremendous role model for me my entire life. Her efforts to keep our family connected have been unrivaled by anyone. I have learned much from her about how to bring people together and get along as a family.”

Natalie Davis wrote: “I pray that as you make your decision in the case of my aunt … you will see past the paperwork you have sitting in front of you and see into the heart of this woman. Of course, you will not find perfection, but you will find honesty, integrity, compassion and a servant’s heart.”

How anyone could call Whittley honest is beyond Vining.

Confirming suspicions

What Thayer has gone through is a good lesson for other cities, small or big, residents say.

“We were caught sleeping,” Brownlee said. “When you don’t ask questions, you’re buying trouble, and unfortunately, we bought too much trouble.”

What happened is not “the norm for a small town,” he said. “This is an accident of judgment that opened our eyes. Now our focus is on how can we heal the wounds of the community.”

Vining likens Whittley’s recent sentencing hearing to a funeral.

“Court kind of reminded me of the funeral after a death,” he said. “It was the closure.”

Whittley apologized in court, but some people in town said she has shown no remorse.

“I just want to say I’m sorry, and I’ll do the best I can to pay it back,” she said at her sentencing hearing Oct. 24.

That isn’t enough for council member Phillips. She joined the council in November 2010, replacing someone who had gone off the board.

The town elected her in April 2011 for a four-year term. Her campaign was simple: She went door to door with a letter that said she wanted an audit of the town’s finances.

Phillips, who works and does the books at her father’s convenience store, Smithy’s Express, said she had pushed for an audit because “nothing was itemized, and we didn’t see bank statements. I knew something was wrong.”

“I just wanted to be like, ‘I told you so,’ ” when the auditor confirmed her suspicions, she said.

Some people in town didn’t appreciate her persistence, she said. She’s lost friends over the case, she said.

“It was all hush hush. I felt the people needed to be informed more,” she said. “Our town literally was going bankrupt. To me, a lot of people acted like she did no wrong.”

Phillips is concerned about Whittley paying the money back. In court, Assistant U.S. Attorney Mona Furst calculated the city’s loss at closer to $180,000. Vining said they could only go back 2 1/2 years on the audit. Whittley had been city clerk for 11 years.

Phillips would like to see Whittley apologize directly to the people of Thayer.

“How hard would it have been to say, ‘I messed up’ ?” Phillips asked. “Is she really sorry? I think she might be sorry she got caught.”

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