May 2 Update: Deborah Thomas turned herself in at the Volusia County jail. The jail site lists April 30 as the booking date, the day the warrant was issued. She was booked in, but is no longer in custody.
Flagler County Tax Collector Suzanne Johnston and Deborah Thomas worked together going back to 1985, when both were employed at the property appraiser’s office, where Thomas spent much of her career. In January 2011, Thomas, now 60, began working for the tax collector as the ambulance collections manager. To Johnston, she was doing “an excellent job” collecting payments, as the collection rate at the office was higher than the state average. Thomas was paid a good wage: $58,500 a year.
What Johnston didn’t know, what no one at the tax collector’s office knew until the Clerk of Court’s office alerted them that something was amiss, was that Thomas, according to a Flagler County Sheriff’s investigation, was allegedly skimming off for herself what Johnston herself calculated to be over $70 a week in cash payments while fabricating records to hide her trail.
The thefts began the very same year Thomas started working in the tax collector’s office and continued through her last year: she “retired” on July 31, 2018–“we had cake and everything,” Johnston recalled–though by then Johnston’s staff had been looking into bookkeeping irregularities for a few months, as Thomas herself was well aware, since she was part of the team responsible for looking into those irregularities. So she knew they were onto the alleged scheme.
Thomas was in the fourth year of the state’s deferred retirement option program, which would have required her to retire regardless, though she could have put in one more year still when she chose to retire in 2018 and move to Knoxville, where she’s had a family home, and where she was caring for her ailing husband, who died earlier this year. Tax collector’s staffers say she has since returned to Flagler.
On Tuesday, the sheriff’s office issued an arrest warrant for Thomas, charging her with embezzlement, a felony. She is accused of embezzling $21,834 between 2011 and 2018, though she is being charged only on amounts documented to have been allegedly stolen between 2014 and 2018 because of the statute of limitations–a total of $16,418.
The difference is significant: the cut-off between a third-degree felony and a second-degree felony is $20,000. A second degree felony carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison, as opposed to five years for a third-degree felony.
Johnston and her staffers were in shock at the revelations. “Anyone who wants to steal 50 cents from this office, you’re going to jail,” Johnston said this morning. She sought to put the alleged thefts in perspective, saying her office collects $180 million a year in taxes and fees. She said the division affected employed three people. Thomas was one of them. Johnston said it would not have made financial sense to hire an additional person just to audit the transactions.
Debbie Thomas in a 2017 Facebook selfie taken at the tax collector’s office. [/caption]Her annual auditors never caught the discrepancies. “They’re auditing the $180 million,” Johnston said. “And they only audit certain things.” While the alleged thefts went on for so many years, ultimately another check in the system, the clerk’s office’s own finance department staffers, who go over all county and constitutional officers’ accounts, told Johnston that “something doesn’t look right” in her ambulance billing. (The sheriff’s office’s arrest affidavit for Thomas does not mention the clerk of court connection, only that the investigation started internally at the tax collector’s office.)
The internal investigation was carried out by Rae Nesico, Johnston’s deputy and human resources director, and Lisa Leeman, then an ambulance specialist (now a clerk).
Johnston’s office determined that whatever was amiss did not affect credit card or check payments or money orders–only cash. There was an incident in June 2018 when staffers approached Thomas to ask her about a missing $20. Thomas claimed it may have been misplaced and volunteered to pay the $20 herself until it was found. The arrest affidavit states the broader internal investigation started after that, though office staffers today put the timeline of their investigation closer to March-April 2018.
As they described it, customers would make their regular payments on ambulance bills and be provided a receipt. Some of those payments were made in cash. Thomas allegedly would then reverse cash transactions, meaning she’d void them, then she would re-code the transaction’s trail in such a way that that the account would register a payment, but not the cash, which she allegedly pocketed. The tax office then asked its computer-billing contractor, Tri-Tech, to review all ambulance transactions dating back to 2011. (The tax office was responsible for those transactions until 2017, when the county opted to hire a private provider to do the job.) Computer records indicated all reversed transactions were the work of Thomas. It also revealed fabricated codes that hid the absent money, all of which was allegedly skimmed in various amounts–$250 here, $20 there, $170 here, $824 there.
John Castanheira, a sheriff’s detective, reached Thomas in mid-March. “Thomas admitted to taking some money,” the sheriff’s office said in a release. (Her admission is redacted from the charging affidavit.) She had disputed the accusation, but in a subsequent call to the detective, she explained that after speaking with family members in law enforcement, “if she could not dispel the information I had then she was not going to fight it,” the detective reported. Thomas did not respond to a Facebook message.
Though Thomas, if convicted, faces up to five years in prison, the likelier outcome in such situations, if the accused does not fight it, is a plea deal that avoids prison time and reduces the penalty to a few years’ probation. But any felony conviction would mean that Thomas would lose her retirement benefits from the Florida Retirement System.
Johnston today sought to reassure the public. “We take the trust of the citizens that they place in our local government, we take it all very seriously,” she said, reading from a statement she had just typed up, “and I have the highest confidence in my employees but we are constantly reviewing procedures, performances, to ensure we implement any necessary changes, and we do strive to exceed everyone’s expectations. I have an excellent group of people. I’m floored that somebody would do this. I worked with her basically since 1985.”
Johnston was behind her desk as she spoke. She then turned to Leeman, who was sitting across her desk: “Are you shocked, Lisa?”
“Very. Yes,” Leeman said. “I think I still am sometimes.”