Fernandina Beach News Leader
Embezzler: When trust goes awry
By Benjamin Price, News-Leader
When law enforcement confirmed that Julie Mixon stole more than $1 million from the Nassau County Clerk of Court's office, it sent a shockwave through the community.
An unassuming, middle-aged woman on the verge of retirement; one of the county's longest serving and most trusted employees; a person who by all accounts was exceedingly kind and generous to everyone she worked with or knew. How could this person have stolen more than $1 million from Nassau County?
Mixon's story turned even more tragic in May, when she took her own life just days after confessing her crime to law enforcement.
But according to one embezzlement specialist, Mixon's story is the norm in cases of employee theft, not the exception.
Longtime, unassuming, trusted employees are often the perpetrators for just those very reasons. Trust can translate into employer negligence.
"I've talked to people who've said, 'It was like taking candy from a baby,' said Ruth Crane, a certified bookkeeper in Maryland. "They think, 'Why shouldn't I do this, when it's so ridiculously easy.'"
Crane specializes in helping small businesses protect themselves from theft. She's also the co-author of the theft-protection guide, Embezzlement 101: How to steal from your employer and not get caught.
Crane said in comparison to hundreds of cases of employee theft she's studied, Mixon's case looks familiar.
A person with no criminal history or apparent malicious intent suddenly becomes the focus of a million-dollar crime.
In Mixon's case, and most others, Crane said it usually doesn't start out that way. It usually begins with comparative innocence, a case of petty theft.
"I really, truly believe that bookkeeper embezzler types are not people that start out as thieves," Crane said. "They start out as a good, honest employee. Maybe they're behind on a credit card bill. So they borrow some money, with the intention of paying it back next month. Then they do it again. Then they see no one noticed, and it just grows and grows."
In her confession to law enforcement, Mixon said it started out as just that. She took a few hundred dollars, she said, to help out some friends.
Over the years the thefts became larger. Eventually she was walking out of the clerk's office on an almost daily basis with thousands of dollars stashed in her purse.
With access to both cash and the bank reconciliations, she was able to cover her tracks with fake checks and false deposit slips.
No one else saw her work. No one held her accountable.
And to that extent, Crane said, others are at least partially responsible.
"The person who decides to steal, that's their decision," Crane said. "But when it's made easy, and the officials who made it easy had a responsibility to institute controls - to what extent are they responsible also? You can't prevent theft, but you can deter it. When you don't, there might be an issue of contributory negligence."
Crane said that happens to small businesses and governments more often than people realize. Only about 2 percent of employee theft cases are reported to authorities.
It's not that small businesses and governments can't afford to implement anti-theft controls, it's that they simply choose not to. Sometimes, adequate security is difficult to enforce when employees are considered family.
"They don't want to believe someone they regard as a family member can be stealing from them, so they turn their back on that real probability," she said.
Crane said she's talked to more than one small business owner, who's said, "How do I go to my bookkeeper and say, 'I'm keeping tabs on the books?' They're afraid of the employee thinking, 'What's wrong, don't you trust me?'"
The simple answer is that professional bookkeepers should know that's standard operating procedure and essential to securing a business.
In a culture where few people leave their homes unlocked to go to work, Crane said, it's amazing how these same people think nothing of allowing unlocked access to enormous sums of money.
Again it goes back to trust. And unfortunately that virtue can be heavily damaged when it results in cases of fraud.
Nassau County Clerk of Court John Crawford said it's been an difficult year for many on his staff who worked closely with Mixon for years. Many refused to believe she could have stolen the money until they heard a recording of her confession played on the news.
Crane said feelings of hurt, anger and betrayal are common symptoms that can result in tension at the workplace.
"People don't look at each other the same way anymore," she said. "They've worked with these people all these years, and now they've got to wonder, 'How do I know who I can trust?'"