Fernandina Beach News Leader
'Sense of relief, anger' in clerk's office
By Benjamin Price, News-Leader
Relief and anger. That's how Nassau County Clerk of Court John Crawford described the mood at his office following last week's revelation that former employee Julie Mixon embezzled more than $1 million over 10 years.
Her confession - made in a law enforcement interview April 22, seven days before Mixon killed herself in a Jacksonville hotel room - was revealed at a press conference Thursday.
"Certainly there's regret and disappointment, but there's also a sense of relief now that we have it from Julie's mouth," Crawford said. "But there is also anger, knowing that somebody working in our midst did this and was allowed to work here so long undetected."
Now that law enforcement has wrapped up much of its investigation into the theft the county has a two-fold focus: Is there any way to recover any of the stolen money, and what measures should be taken to ensure something like this never happens again.
In her confession Mixon never revealed where she spent the money, and state law enforcement said last week the answer may never be known.
But Crawford said Monday the county is working with an outside legal council to pursue civil means to recover any of Mixon's assets the county may be entitled to.
Crawford confirmed that Mixon signed over a quitclaim deed April 28 to transfer her three-bedroom home worth approximately $110,000 to her sister Mary Durrance.
However, Crawford would not say whether that was an asset the county would try and recover.
"Yes we have identified assets, but I'm not at liberty to discuss that further," he said.
In her recorded confession Mixon admitted she "knew eventually it would be caught up with" but was hoping it wouldn't "and things would be on the straight and narrow."
Why it took so long for Mixon to be "caught up with" remains a mystery.
Crawford, who took over from former clerk Chip Oxley in January, said there was a lack of oversight by his predecessors that allowed employees to enjoy too much trust and not enough accountability.
Before Mixon was fired in February, she was one of the longest serving employees in the clerk's office. Hired in 1981, she eventually served for several years as finance account manager. Law enforcement investigators said no other employees are suspected of theft or assisting Mixon, who enjoyed a level of autonomy that allowed her to take cash and write fake checks to cover her tracks.
Mixon's actions went undetected by her employer, internal audits and the county's outside auditor Farmand, Farmand & Farmand.
Crawford said Mixon's salary increased by about $18,000 in the eight years she was stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars in county funds.
No one ever suspected the 56-year-old employee, who seemingly lived modestly and enjoyed enormous respect and trust among her co-workers.
Jerry Greeson, Crawford's assistant and a former Nassau clerk of the courts, who originally hired Mixon, said last week he was "totally shocked" to learn of her confession and said he might not believe it until he heard it with his own ears.
"As far as I knew, and know, she was a sweet lady that'd give you the shirt off her back," he said. "I haven't heard the confession, and until I do, I reserve any further comment."
Asked Monday if Mixon was too trusted, Crawford said that would be "an unacceptable excuse."
"It doesn't matter that I trust (employees) or respect them, I'm responsible as clerk to have checks and balances in place, so that if I misjudge someone's level of honesty the public trust will still be protected."
Another question that lingers is why internal audits or Farmand, Farmand & Farmand never discovered the "financial irregularities" Crawford said were first reported by an employee.
There was an "over-reliance," he said, on external consultants and auditors that created a false sense of security in the office.
"There was no system in place to check what the auditor told us," he said. "After what we've gone through, I don't think we can ever again rely solely on an outside auditor to give us the assurance our books are in order."
A spokesperson for Farmand, Farmand & Farmand deferred comment to A.B. Farmand, who was unavailable for comment.
The clerk's office has stressed that steps are already being taken to guarantee oversight over every employee in the office, including the clerk.
That includes adding "comptroller" to the clerk's official title and assigning a deputy comptroller.
The deputy comptroller will create the procedures and processes for handling county funds, and ensure they're adhered to.
A "department of internal auditor" will also be added to "test, retest and challenge" the office to make sure all employees and departments adhere to the procedures set by the comptroller.
"Even the clerk shouldn't be moving millions of dollars around unchecked," Crawford said. "What if I was a crook? No one will go without proper oversight. No one will have the key to the kingdom by themselves."
In the meantime, the county has hired an auditing firm specializing in fraud and embezzlement to try and determine precisely how much money is missing. So far the tally is close to more than a million dollars, and going up.