Long-time employee named in criminal charges
According to an arrest affidavit filed Oct. 16, an employee of Bee Branch Water association has been charged with theft of property and forgery after auditors found $174,161.02 missing from association accounts.
Per the affidavit, the loss was discovered after an audit of association financial records in August. The accounting firm reported it had found where the employee, Virginia Watson, had made out false statements by copying existing statements, which were then paid by forging names on association checks. The auditor showed the process of false statement and payment had been going on since 2014.
Watson’s employment had been, per the affidavit, “terminated” by the association in July 2018.
The affidavit continued that Richard McPhail, Bee Branch Water Association head, had “asked Mrs. Watson directly about the missing monies. Mr. McPhail stated Mrs. Watson never raised her head and stated she knew all about it. Mrs. Watson then stated that it started with a small amount of money that she intended to pay back then it got out of hand to where she could not pay it back.”
It was at this point Watson’s employment was “terminated,” by McPhail, the affidavit continued.
The auditor firm, Conner & Sartain in Conway, provided the sheriff’s department investigator with records of the fraudulent transactions and corresponding bank statements “… where Mrs. Watson wrote herself a check and tried to pass it off as payments to companies.”
A Bee Branch Water Association employee said Watson had been with the Association for 20 years.
The Van Buren County Sheriff’s Department web site showed Watson had been charged and arrested Oct. 19, then bonding out roughly one hour later on a $7,500 bond. Court records show Watson was charged with Felony Theft or Property over $25,000, a Class B Felony, and Felony Forgery II, a Class C Felony.
“To me she stole from everybody who has a water meter,” McPhail said.
Bee Branch Water Association has an estimated 2,000 metered customers, according to a company representative.
McPhail expressed frustration in the time lapse between the evidence being turned over to the Prosecutor and Watson’s arrest.
“We didn’t know why it took so long,” McPhail said.
County Prosecutor Chad Brown would not speak to the specifics of the Watson arrest.
Speaking to the typical process is arrests such as this, however, Brown said the prosecutor issues a series of subpoenas for records after the investigation has been turned in to his office by the sheriff’s office. The subpoenas are done prior to issuing the arrest warrant in order to assure records for the court case are in place. The subpoenas would be for records related to a crime and can take time to gather, double-check against existing records, and otherwise used to build the records for the court case, he said.
McPhail said the loss will not impact water service to association customers.
“Customers have nothing to worry about,” he said.
One point which was causing some confusion in the community was customers who thought the association, now that the theft had been reported, had gotten the money back, McPhail said. This is not the case, he said.
“For right now we’re operating where we were,” he said.
Watson’s court appearance, according to court records, is scheduled for early December.
Brown, again being careful not to speak to the specifics of the case, said Watson being out on bond was a decision made by the judge who issued the bond amount.
“We can not punish with bonds,” Brown said.