Radford city lunch lady allegedly stole more than $250,000 before death

Investigators say Lenora Williams spent $261,295.24 in unauthorized purchases

By Erin Brookshier - Virginia Today Reporter

RADFORD, Va. - Virginia State Police have closed the investigation into a Radford City Schools cafeteria employee who they say embezzled and spent more than a quarter of a million dollars of taxpayer money.

Investigators say after the 2017 death of Lenora Williams, the longtime director of food services, it suddenly became evident that taxpayer money had been used to make hundreds of unauthorized purchases from an account controlled and supervised by Williams.

A report released this morning reveals the following banking activity over the past 10 years: $173,366.74 in unapproved charges on a debit card from the account, $11,804.84 in unapproved checks written from the account, and $76,123.66 missing from cafeteria money deposits. Police say the grand total is $261,295.24 in Radford City School money embezzled by Williams.

Debit card receipts included expenses Williams incurred at Amazon, Shentel, Walmart, Kroger, multiple restaurants, gasoline, resorts and even payments for Radford City utilities and taxes. Investigators say methods of embezzlement included falsified audit reports, money taken from student meal plan accounts and inflated numbers for the free and reduced lunch program.

Police say they believe the decade-long theft could have been prevented. Radford City Commonwealth's Attorney Chris Rehak says on top of negligent record management, lackadaisical security measures and careless accounting efforts, that a warning was also disregarded.

In a report, he reveals that unusual gifts and expenditures by Williams in 2010 led to an environment where the cafeteria staff members felt uncomfortable making a report. He says one employee stepped up to blow the whistle. In 2010, several school administrators had a meeting with cafeteria staff and learned that Williams might be mismanaging money and engaging in improper spending habits. The concern was dismissed and police were never contacted.

Rehak says it appears that most of the embezzlement happened in the seven years since the meeting.

He also reports that Williams had incriminating monthly bank records sent directly to the Radford City School Board Office, where the mail was unopened and routed to her.

Rehak says he is duty-bound to share the information that he believes citizens have a right to know. He says he also shares in the responsibility to protect public money and would have prosecuted the crimes.

A news release issued by Radford City Public School counters part of Rehak's statement, saying"

Prior to October 2017 administration was unaware of any reliable and verifiable facts that either established or proved that any former employee was embezzling cafeteria funds in the manner discovered in the post-October 2017 investigation, or that would have warranted a referral to law enforcement.  Additionally, before Radford City Commonwealth’s Attorney released his May 14, 2018 media statement with his conclusory opinion regarding the embezzlement of cafeteria funds, he did not interview or communicate with any member of administration or with the School Board to discuss the facts, the school division’s investigative findings, or his conclusions.

Anyone who notices suspicious activity is encouraged to contact police or submit a tip.

Below is the full statement from Radford City Public Schools:

In late October 2017, Division administration first discovered apparent irregularities in the use of debit charges and withdrawals from the division’s cafeteria account. Based on employee use of and access to the account, administration reached a preliminary conclusion that cafeteria funds may have been taken by a former employee for personal use. Promptly thereafter, administration contacted local law enforcement and the Virginia State Police, the School Board’s legal counsel, and the School Board’s auditor, and sought advice on how to best proceed with an effective investigation. Soon thereafter, and on the advice of legal counsel, administration contacted and met with a representative of the division’s insurer and discussed the division’s coverage for such loss and the process for making a claim to recover insurance funds to indemnify the division for the anticipated losses. On the advice of the Board’s auditor, administration also contacted the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Office of Inspector General to discuss whether and to what extent the former employee may have appropriated for personal use free and reduced lunch funds provided by the federal government.

Since discovery of the misappropriation of funds in October 2017, administration worked closely with the School Board’s auditing firm to review available division records relating to cafeteria funds. Those records were reviewed for a period extending back to 2007 to identify and quantify the losses resulting from the former employee’s misappropriation of funds. Administration shared all records and documents relating to the theft, along with the Auditor’s findings, to the Virginia State Police investigator conducting the criminal investigation of this matter. The investigative findings implicated the involvement of the former employee only. The investigation did not identify any other Radford City Schools employee to be involved in the misappropriation of funds.

During the pendency of the Virginia State Police investigation, which lasted several months, the lead investigator directed administration and the School Board to avoid any public comment on the investigation and identified loss, advising that any public comment would potentially interfere with an effective criminal investigation. Administration and the School Board, after consultation with the School Board’s legal counsel, fully complied with the directives of the investigating officer.

Shortly after discovery of the misappropriation, administration implemented changes to the division’s financial procedures to minimize the likelihood of any future similar loss. Administration, in consultation with its auditors, continues to review procedures and additional changes to strengthen internal controls. At this point, the division anticipates that most of the loss will likely be covered by the division’s insurer.

Prior to October 2017, the facts relating to the cafeteria fund theft were never identified or reported to administration or the School Board. The school division’s accounts and funds were audited annually, as required by law, and the annual audits did not identify the theft or irregularities. Contrary to the expressed opinion of the Commonwealth’s Attorney in his media statement, prior to October 2017 administration was unaware of any reliable and verifiable facts that either established or proved that any former employee was embezzling cafeteria funds in the manner discovered in the post-October 2017 investigation, or that would have warranted a referral to law enforcement. Additionally, before Radford City Commonwealth’s Attorney released his May 14, 2018 media statement with his conclusory opinion regarding the embezzlement of cafeteria funds, he did not interview or communicate with any member of administration or with the School Board to discuss the facts, the school division’s investigative findings, or his conclusions.

From the moment administration discovered the irregularities in the cafeteria account in October 2017, administration, under the direction of the School Board, has moved swiftly and deliberately to investigate and discover the extent of the loss and to consider and implement changes to help prevent any similar incident in the future. Those efforts were aided through the recommendations and assistance of law enforcement and the professional advice and recommendations of the Board’s legal counsel and auditors.

The School Board and administration take seriously the obligation to safeguard public funds and to make sure they are used for appropriate educational purposes. We will continue to focus our attention and efforts on taking all reasonable steps to recover the funds misappropriated by our former employee and continue implementing necessary changes in procedures to help prevent such theft in the future.

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