Politics & Government

She's charged with stealing $926,000, but gets a $89K pension. A bill may change that.

Embezzlement trial for Laura Riddick, former Wake register of deeds, is set

A trial date is of Oct. 1, 2018 is set for Laura Riddick, the former Wake County register of deeds, Monday, April 30, 2017 at the Wake County Justice Center . Riddick is charged with charged with embezzling $926,615.
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A trial date is of Oct. 1, 2018 is set for Laura Riddick, the former Wake County register of deeds, Monday, April 30, 2017 at the Wake County Justice Center . Riddick is charged with charged with embezzling $926,615.

Laura Riddick, the former Wake County Register of Deeds, would lose her $89,000 annual pension under a potential new law.

Riddick is accused of stealing more than $926,000 from county taxpayers over six years. Prosecutors allege Riddick and three other former employees at the Register of Deeds embezzled more than $1.13 million.

Riddick retired last fall and still receives a pension of $7,428 a month — $5,928 from the fund for local government employees and an additional $1,500 from a fund for Registers of Deeds. (Under state law, registers of deeds with 10 years in office are eligible for a supplemental pension that’s not available to most other local government employees.

She's scheduled to receive the pension for the rest of her life and, under current state law, she would likely lose part of her pension if she's convicted. But if this bill passes, she would lose a larger portion of the pension if she's later convicted.

Former Wake County register of deeds Laura Riddick turned herself in to law enforcement officers on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2017, the day after she was accused of embezzling more than $900,000 from the office she presided over for two decades. Riddick

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The bill filed Tuesday aims to limit the pension of state government employees who are convicted of embezzlement. North Carolina laws already states that government workers can lose their pension if they commit certain crimes — mostly related to corruption, obstruction of justice and other similar ethical misdeeds. But embezzlement, which is what Riddick has been charged with, is not currently on that list.

Riddick is a Republican, as are the three legislators who sponsored the bill — Reps. Stephen Ross of Burlington, Allen McNeill of Asheboro and Andy Dulin of Charlotte. They could not be reached for comment. Their proposed changes were recommended by Dale Folwell, the state treasurer, who's also a Republican.

"It doesn’t matter which political party you're a member of, people across the state get highly agitated that an individual can earn pension credit from the period in which they were committing a crime," Folwell said in an phone interview.

The treasurer's office handles "a handful" of cases each year where it alters the pension of a state employee who was convicted of a crime, Folwell said.

"This particular provision is a response to things we learn about where the law didn’t give us the clarity that we need," Folwell said. He's optimistic the bill will pass.

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About pensions

People who are employed by the state or by local governments are eligible to receive indefinite monthly pension payments after they retire.

Those payments are based on how long they worked in government, and how much money they earned in the highest-paid four years of their career.

Government workers help fund the pension system while they're still working by putting in 6 percent of their paychecks.

Even if they lose their pension after being convicted of one or more of the listed crimes, in some instances they are still able to get back the money they paid into the system, plus interest.

Support for the bill

The N.C. Register of Deeds Association is still reviewing the bill, said Ken Melton, the group's lobbyist.

"But, traditionally, our group has always been supportive of legislation that improves the ethical standards of our line of work," Melton said.

Richard Rogers, the executive director of the N.C. Retired Government Employees Association, likewise said his group doesn't object to the changes. In addition to adding embezzlement to the list of crimes that can cause a retired government worker to lose a pension, this bill would also add in crimes associated with computer hacking.

"I think that convicted felons should probably lose their retirement," Rogers said.

Will it affect Riddick?

Riddick, a 51-year-old Republican, first started working for the state in 1990 as an employee in the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. She served as the elected register of deeds from 1996 until her resignation in the spring of 2017 at the start of an SBI probe.

The Register of Deeds office is each county’s center for processing many legal transactions — from real estate deals to marriage licenses. Riddick ran unopposed for four of her six campaigns. Until her indictment, she had a sterling reputation and publicly touted her professional principles.

Whether Riddick is affected by the bill depends on if she is convicted and when.

According to the treasurer's office, any retired registers of deeds could lose some — but not all — of their pension if the bill either fails to pass or if they're convicted before it does pass.

If the bill passes before the person is convicted, a spokesman for the treasurer's office said, "then the retired (register of deeds) would lose all future benefits that would have been paid to them."

Riddick's trial is set for Oct. 1. The bill has been sent to the committee on pensions and retirement, which is chaired by McNeill, one of the bill's sponsors.

Specht: 919-829-4870 @AndySpecht