Despite pleading guilty to six counts of felony embezzlement last week, former Wake County Register of Deeds Laura Riddick still receives $89,000 a year from the state’s pension system.
But that may soon change.
Dale Folwell, North Carolina’s State Treasurer, told the N&O in an interview Monday that his office plans to apply the state law for ceasing pension payments to Riddick.
Riddick pleaded guilty Aug. 24 to stealing more than $926,000 from the deeds office over a six-year period. Riddick, who retired last fall after leading the office for 20 years, 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.)
State law offers three options for seizing payments to public officials convicted of felonies, according to the treasurer’s office. And Folwell said Monday his office plans to use them as soon as possible.
“As the ‘keeper of the public purse’ I don’t pick and choose which laws to apply or who to apply them to,” Folwell said in an email.
“Unfortunately, public servants who placed their left hand on the Bible and raised their right hand to uphold the Constitution and laws of NC have been and are being convicted of crimes while in their public service duties. It happens with Democrats and Republicans across the state,” he said. “We wish it didn’t happen, but when it does, we will go in and remove the pension service during the time the person was convicted of.”
Investigators believe a total of $2.3 million went missing from the deeds office between 2008 and 2017. Riddick is one of four former deeds employees accused of stealing a combined $1.13 million dating back to 2010. Prosecutors accused Riddick of taking money between August 2010 and January 2017.
As of Thursday, the treasurer’s office was still waiting on paperwork from the courts. So it can’t yet calculate exactly how much Riddick’s payments will be reduced.
“The department is aware of coverage related to Ms. Riddick’s guilty plea, but we have not received the Judgement Documents from the court or made any formal determinations of how her plea will impact her benefits,” Stephanie Hawco, spokeswoman for the treasurer’s office, said in an email. She expects to receive Riddick’s plea deal information in the next couple weeks.
Hawco relayed three provisions in state law that allow the treasurer’s office to halt payments to public officials.
One provision applies to felonies committed by Registers of Deeds after July 1, 2007. “If applied to a retired ROD, this law would reduce the number of years used in the pension calculation by an amount equal to the years of service earned” after the 2007 date, Hawco wrote.
Another provision applies to felonies committed by public officials after Dec. 1, 2012. “If applied to a retired ROD, this law would reduce the number of years used in the pension calculation by an amount equal to the years of service earned after December 1, 2012,” Hawco wrote.
The legislature added the third provision to state law this year at Folwell’s suggestion. The law, proposed by Republicans who reside outside of Wake County, specifically targets state government employees convicted of embezzlement and added the new provision that affects the Registers of Deeds Supplemental Pension Fund.
“If a retired ROD is convicted (which includes a guilty plea), and any portion of that ROD’s (pension payment) is forfeited, then the retired ROD would lose all future benefits that would have been paid to them from the Registers of Deeds Supplemental Pension Fund,” Hawco wrote.
She added: “Under the new law passed this year, if her (local government) benefit is reduced by any amount because of a felony conviction, she will lose all of her $18,000 per year (register of deeds) benefit.”
Other convicted officials
Riddick wouldn’t be the first elected official to lose her pension.
Last year, the state reduced the pension of former N.C. legislator Fletcher Hartsell after he pleaded guilty to improperly spending and reporting campaign finances. The state reduced Hartsell’s payment from $1,121 a month to $991 after his conviction, Hawco said in an email. However, that $991 a month jumped to $1,001 after the legislature approved a cost-of-living-adjustment, also known as COLA.
Also last year, a former state probation officer Maud Ingram pleaded guilty to four courts of second-degree rape, according to the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald. The state reduced his monthly payments from $1,473 to $910.
In 2016, the former leader of the state’s Human Resources office pleaded guilty to embezzling more than $440,000 from the office, as WRAL reported. The state reduced the monthly payments to Chakrapani Tademeti from $3,368 to $2,967 after he was convicted, Hawco said. The monthly payment jumped to $2,997 after the 2017 COLA.
In 2015, federal prosecutors announced in a press release that they had charged Mary Sherrill with stealing from Catawba Valley Community College in Hickory. After Sherrill was convicted, the state cut her monthly pension payments from $1,668 to $1,325. Recent COLAs boosted the monthly payment to $1,339, Hawco wrote.