Former Benton County Official Charged In $48,000 Theft
A felony theft-of-property charge has been filed in Benton County Circuit Court against Christine Renee Southard, according to a court document.
Southard, 41, is former administrative assistant for Benton County Clerk Tena O’Brien.
The charge filed Wednesday is a Class B felony, punishable with a prison sentence of five to 20 years.
Southard is accused of stealing $48,077 while employed in O’Brien’s office, the document states. She is set to be arraigned Monday before Circuit Judge Robin Green.
Southard was booked into the Benton County Jail May 9 on suspicion of stealing more than $48,000 from the clerk’s office, according to a Circuit Court arrest affidavit.
Southard, of 42 Tamsworth Circle in Bella Vista, told O’Brien she had a gambling problem and had stolen $46,059.97, according to Sgt. Jeremy Felton of the Benton County Sheriff’s Office. Information from Felton is included in the affidavit.
O’Brien says she had no idea what was going on.
“We are like a family in this office,” O’Brien said. “And so I was very shocked and my heart is broken.”
Felton said he’d received information about the theft and interviewed O’Brien on April 30. During that interview, O’Brien told Felton what Southard had said, the affidavit states.
O’Brien reported the incident to County Attorney George Spence, and Southard has been fired, the affidavit states.
Southard had been an employee in the office since 1999 and was promoted to administrative assistant in 2009. In that role, she had authorization to use the clerk’s office bank accounts.
O’Brien said Southard told her she had lost her house but didn’t pay any debts with the stolen money, the affidavit states.
O’Brien says Southard was sad and apologetic when telling her what she’d done.
“I miss her,” O’Brien said. “I expect her to walk through the door at any time. She had a world of knowledge.”
The incident was uncovered when Arkansas legislative auditors last month began auditing the Benton County Clerk’s Office for 2011.
On Friday, April 27, a state auditor told O’Brien about discrepancies between bank statements and monthly reports from August 2011 to December 2011. O’Brien told Southard what the auditor said, and Southard initially indicated some deposits were outstanding. O’Brien asked Southard to locate the discrepancies over the weekend. Southard returned to work on Monday, April 30, and provided O’Brien with bank reconciliation statements indicating she had stolen more than $46,000, the affidavit states.
Auditors are attempting to determine the total amount stolen. The amount taken just in January and February 2012 combined is $9,664.25, the affidavit states. Auditors hope to determine in a few weeks how much was stolen from August 2011 through April 2012.
Southard apparently deposited checks in the bank but not cash the office received, according to the affidavit.
Southard posted bail the day after her arrest and was released from jail on a $15,000 bond, said Nathan Smith, deputy prosecuting attorney.