Politics & Government

Laura Riddick pleads guilty to embezzlement in Wake missing money case

A year after investigators discovered $2.3 million missing from the Wake County Register of Deeds office, its longtime leader will go to prison.

Laura Riddick, who ran the office from 1997 to 2017, pleaded guilty Friday to six counts of embezzling from the office.

Wake County Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway accepted the plea deal that Riddick reached with prosecutors, ordering her to repay $926,000 and serve five to seven years in prison. He also granted her work release.

The deeds office discovered last year that money was missing, and an investigation by the county’s insurance company found $2.3 million had vanished from the office between 2013 and 2017. Prosecutors charged four former employees with taking a combined $1.13 million, including $926,615 by Riddick.

“This is sad because someone who had the public’s trust was betraying it and was motivated, certainly in my opinion, by greed,” District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said in an interview.

In the courtroom, Ridgeway described the events similarly. He referred to Riddick as a former colleague, but called her actions “senseless” and “outrageous.”

The Register of Deeds, though low-profile, is a go-to office for lawyers, developers, newlyweds and others who need to file legal documents. The office lacked basic procedures for handling cash, Freeman said. And Riddick dismissed concerns from employees who noticed flaws in the reporting system, Freeman said.

Friday’s deal marked the end of a long fall for Riddick, a Republican who campaigned unopposed several times and for years socialized with Raleigh’s political elite. Riddick won the seat when she was 29 years old and is credited with modernizing the deeds office.

She earned an annual salary of $67,575 at the start of her career that reached $143,267 by the time she resigned on April 1, around the time authorities launched a probe into her office. Riddick and her husband Matthew Eisley, who recently worked in communications for prominent Raleigh law firm Smith Anderson, together earned nearly $250,000 a year, her attorney, Joe Zeszotarski, told the court on Friday.

They live in a 4,400-square-foot house near Crabtree Valley Mall that tax assessors last year valued at $730,000.

Zeszotarski said Riddick’s behavior is inexcusable but emphasized that she was influenced by a rough childhood that contributed to crippling anxiety and “a compulsion to hoard money.” And her sloppiness — she made 650 cash deposits with embezzled money — are a reflection of her mental state, he said.

“This was her secret and she knew it was wrong, but she still did it,” he said.

The court proceedings played out in the Wake County Justice Center in downtown Raleigh — the same building that houses the Register of Deeds. Seven floors above Riddick’s former office, she waited in a hallway with friends and family for the courtroom doors to open at 9:30 a.m.

Reporters stood about 10 feet away, occasionally taking photos as Riddick hugged people. Before entering, Eisley, a former N&O editor and reporter, gathered a small group to pray.

Once in the courtroom and seated at the defense table, Riddick often looked over her shoulder into the crowd but remained composed throughout the morning — even as she read a letter of apology.

“My only purpose in speaking today is to apologize – to you, Your Honor; to Ms. Freeman; to the current and former county commissioners; to the customers and staff of the registry; and to the people of Wake County, whose trust I violated,” Riddick said, adding:

“I’m especially sorry to my teenage daughter Elizabeth, the precious light and joy of my life.”

A receipt from the Wake County Clerk of Court showing the money that former Wake Register of Deeds Laura Riddick repaid Aug. 24, 2018 as part of a plea deal with District Attorney Lorrin Freeman. Riddick was convicted of embezzling $926,615. Courtesy of Wake County commissioner Matt Calabria

She held her attorney’s hand as Ridgeway read the terms of the deal. When Ridgeway ordered bailiffs to escort Riddick away, she carried a large bag full of orange prescription bottles.

Light sentence?

Afterward, the man who replaced Riddick criticized her punishment as too light.

Charles Gilliam, a Republican and former District Court judge appointed to serve as register of deeds, said Riddick should’ve gotten more time in prison and shouldn’t have been granted work release. Inmates on work release leave prison in the morning to go to work and then return at night to sleep.

“I was surprised she was granted work release. I don’t know who’s going to hire her. Work release means that you’re not going to be in prison. You’re going to be out,” Gilliam said.

“Five years, work release, what message does this send in the county or elsewhere (to someone) who might be doing nefarious things and might think it’s worthwhile to give it a go?”

As Gilliam spoke in the hallway, Eisley led a group of Riddick supporters past him to the elevators. Eisley declined to speak with reporters but stopped briefly to distribute packets with information related to Riddick.

The packets included a copy of a hateful letter Riddick received last year, a list of other public officials who have been convicted of embezzlement, and a six-page mental evaluation of Riddick written by psychologist Charles Cooper.

Lifelong trauma

The report says “a perfect storm of (Riddick’s) psychological vulnerabilities, her undiagnosed heart problems, and a set of extreme external conditions all combined to trigger Laura’s compulsion to sequester money.”

The report traces her “hoarding” tendencies back to her childhood in New Jersey, when Riddick was sent to live with her grandparents after her parents split. It says Riddick as a child watched her grandmother hide money from her grandfather, who had a gambling addiction, and remembers her mother “crying all the time” because she lacked money.

As a child, the report says, Riddick was sexually abused by a babysitter and a doctor.

At Meredith College, the report says Riddick became so stressed from work and her mother’s unemployment that she suffered hair loss. As an adult, the report says her anxiety led Riddick to secretly hide money in closets.

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The report ties Riddick’s embezzlement to a series of stressors that occurred between 2011 and 2014. Her house was robbed, she was in a car wreck, she was sexually harassed and stalked, and her email was hacked, the report says. The stress also contributed to tachycardia, a heart condition, it says.

“I believe that under the circumstances she was experiencing, the impulse to have a safety-stash was so strong that it overrode both her rational thinking and her moral values,” Cooper says in the report.

In a phone interview, Freeman pushed back on the narrative that trauma caused Riddick to act out. She pointed to spending on clothes, spas and home improvements. She also noted that many people experience trauma in their lives without turning to crime.

“The receipts speak for themselves,” Freeman said.

‘Little satisfaction’

In her final years in office, Riddick relied on Eisley for emotional and even professional support. He sometimes emailed deeds employees to talk about Riddick and office operations.

In 2015, Eisley once asked several staffers to meet to talk about Riddick’s “high stress level” and, on a separate occasion, scolded an employee after he took a new job.

“I’m afraid that the timing of your decision will have an unintended but negative effect on Laura during an already stressful time, which I can’t help but wish you had considered more fully before breaking the news to her,” Eisley wrote to the staffer in an email.

Wake County told the N&O that Eisley’s involvement does “not reflect the manner in which the county conducts business or manages its employees.”

With Friday’s plea deal, Wake leaders broke their silence on Riddick. Citing the ongoing investigation, they’d previously referred to her in vague terms — even as the scandal caused friction among them.

County commissioners last year argued over the pace of the investigation and who was responsible for watching over Riddick’s office. County manager Jim Hartmann ultimately resigned amid the scandal, saying the two were not linked.

Riddick’s plea on Friday prompted Commissioner Greg Ford to air his frustration on Facebook.

“For years, Laura Riddick’s crimes victimized #Wake’s citizens,” Ford said. “Today’s guilty plea, partial restitution and sentence provide justice, but little satisfaction, to anyone.”

Specht: 919-829-4870 @AndySpecht