The Wake County district attorney and county manager have asked the State Bureau of Investigation to open a probe of the Wake County Register of Deeds Office after discovering a “substantial” amount of money missing.
Lorrin Freeman, the county’s top prosecutor, and county manager Jim Hartmann announced the investigation in a joint news conference Friday afternoon. Neither would discuss how much money they were talking about, other than to say it was missing cash from an office that takes in about $14 million a year.
“In this particular situation we’re talking about public money and public funds and a position and public office that is answering to the public,” Freeman told reporters. “And for that reason we felt like it was very important to try to be transparent in this process from the beginning. And so it is in that spirit that we are here today and announcing that we have opened an investigation by the SBI into accounting irregularities within the Register of Deeds Office.”
At the news conference, Hartmann announced that Laura Riddick, who has been elected to six consecutive terms to the Register of Deeds Office since 1996, was resigning. Hartmann said that Riddick had let him know several weeks ago that she would be leaving for health reasons and that the move is not related to the SBI investigation.
After the news conference, Riddick released a statement.
“Due to a recently diagnosed heart condition that has required surgery, and likely will involve more, I am retiring April 1,” she said. “I have been honored to serve the people of Wake County for the past two decades. I wish the best for my successor, the Registry staff, and our customers.”
Freeman said the SBI investigation was not focused on a particular person in the 40-member Register of Deeds Office.
“At this time this is an investigation looking at that process and at the loss of ... significant or substantial sums of money,” Freeman said.
The criminal probe, the county manager and district attorney said, followed a Wake audit ordered by the county manager earlier this year. Hartmann said he asked for the audit after the Register of Deeds Office, in the process of trying to modernize its collection processes, noticed financial irregularities that it brought to his attention in January.
Hartmann said the office has been very cooperative as auditors and investigators look into the problems and that actions have been taken to better ensure better accounting and reporting of cash that flows through an office that takes in several thousand dollars a day.
This was not the first time the SBI has been called in to investigate problems at the office.
In April 2015, a former employee of the office pleaded guilty in Wake County Superior Court to accessing Riddick’s work email without her consent. In that case, Nelish Kumar Ramesh Tailor of Apex pleaded guilty to setting up an auto-forward from her work account to a Yahoo account he accessed more than 1,000 times between December 2012 and November 2014.
The SBI charged Tailor in December 2014 with 13 counts of accessing government computers. He pleaded guilty to one count each of computer trespassing and obstructing an investigation, both misdemeanors.
Tailor, who was 39 at the time, was sentenced to one year of supervised probation and 75 hours of community service. He also was fined.
Riddick, a Republican, said at the time that she was troubled that one of the office’s computer system administrators not only had forwarded and read her email but also obstructed justice by secretly monitoring the criminal investigation.
As register of deeds, Riddick led the office that records legal documents and maps, issues marriage licenses and vital records certificates, certifies documents and administers notary public oaths.
Hartmann said the acting register of deeds, Luther Snyder, will continue to supervise the day-to-day running of the office until the Republican party nominates a replacement for Riddick. Party spokesman Charles Hellwig said the party’s executive committee will meet and made a decision on April 10.
“I’m assuming people who are interested will contact us,” Hellwig said. “We’ll have our decision that night.”
The GOP meeting isn’t open to the public. Wake commissioners could vote on the GOP’s nominee at their meeting at 2 p.m. April 17.