Woman Who Stole $50K From County Could Get Early Release

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Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly referenced the Benton County Circuit Clerk’s Office, when it should have referenced the Benton County Clerk’s Office. We regret the error.

The former Benton County official who admitted to stealing almost $50,000 from the County Clerk’s Office was sentenced Monday to eight years in prison, although she may get out in less than six months.

Christine Southard, 42, pleaded guilty in February to felony theft of property, for stealing $48,077 from the clerk’s office. The charge carries a maximum of 20 years behind bars.

Southard, a former administrative assistant at the clerk’s office, was sentenced to eight years in prison and 12 years of a suspended sentence following her release, said Nathan Smith, deputy Benton County prosecutor.

Smith said Southard, with good behavior, could be released from prison in less than six months.

Southard was also ordered to pay back the $48,077 to the Benton County Clerk’s Office, as well as $10,600 to state auditors for their time and work on the case.

Southard was booked into the Benton County Jail May 9 on suspicion of stealing the money from the clerk’s office, according to a Circuit Court arrest affidavit.

Southard, of 42 Tamsworth Circle in Bella Vista, told County Clerk Tena 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 said 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.

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.