A former Washington State University employee used creative bookkeeping and regular access to untracked sums of cash to steal more than $40,000 of school funds, officials said Friday.
The lack of accounting procedures that let her take the money to begin with also confounded investigators tallying the damage, said Brian Sonntag, state auditor.
“There was a lot of money that went through there,” Sonntag said, “and there certainly could be other money not accounted for.”
Joyce E. Smith, a 15-year WSU employee and fiscal technician in the animal sciences department, was virtually left alone to handle $1.9 million that came through the department in cash and checks each year.
A state audit released Friday said she skimmed $44,337.75 since 1991, in part by depositing checks into her own personal account - at times altering checks - and withholding cash receipts from the WSU controller’s office.
She also would gather poorly documented checks and substitute them for undocumented cash, which she in turn kept, officials said.
“It must have taken this woman hours and hours every day to get so sophisticated,” said Sallie Giffen, WSU vice president for business affairs.
But a lack of sophistication in university accounting methods was also to blame, said Sonntag.
With Smith given sole responsibility for both taking payments and making deposits, it became “easy to steal money,” Sonntag said.
A lack of documentation also helped, he said, letting the animal sciences department operate like a county fair sideshow with an open cash drawer - “or several side drawers,” said Sonntag.
Department employees would bring the drawers to Smith “to put in the wheelbarrow and take to the bank,” he said.
No money from state or federal appropriations, grants or contracts was taken, officials said. Involved were “local funds,” which came to the university by check or cash as payment for different types of seminars, workshops and other fees.
The university processed nearly $180 million in local funds last year, according to the controller’s office. While nearly half that was tuition and fees processed by cashiers in Pullman and the branch campuses, more than $95 million was spread around at some 150 WSU-affiliated sites across the state.
University officials began investigating Smith in February after a student, seeking proof that she had paid fees for a horse program in Animal Sciences, asked her bank for two checks. Smith’s name was written where the student had written the name of the program, and the checks had been deposited in Smith’s credit union account.
Smith later paid the department $2,731.49 and resigned her $26,748-a-year post, effective March 3. She said she was under mental stress and that her family had financial problems, said Ray Wright, acting chair of the department.
Smith did not admit to any other thefts or speak further with investigators. Smith, who last listed an address in Lewiston, could not be reached for comment.
While the current investigation focused on the Animal Sciences Department, the state auditor had pointed out “significant weaknesses” in the handling of cash in three prior audits.
The school has since tightened its internal controls, taken extra steps to monitor revenues and started several training programs on policies and procedures for handling cash.
School officials are also seeking restitution from Smith and the auditor has forwarded its report to the Whitman County prosecutor for possible criminal charges.