A jury will try LaVeta Miller, the Great Bend woman charged with stealing more than $100,000 from the area Honor Flights program. As Miller stood beside him, her attorney entered a plea of not guilty on her behalf Thursday on two counts of theft by deception.
Ellinwood attorney Richard Anderson waived the reading of the charges during Miller’s arraignment, which followed the conclusion of her preliminary hearing. District Magistrate Don Alvord ruled that the state, represented by Barton County Attorney Douglas Matthews, had presented sufficient evidence for the case to move forward.
District Judge Ron Svaty will most likely hear the case later this year.
Miller deceived her board of directors and manipulated the books to write checks to herself, Matthews said in his closing statement. Anderson described a criminal investigation of “apples and oranges,” and called it a “witch hunt” in his own closing remarks.
The preliminary hearing lasted two full days, starting back on March 6 and resuming Thursday. Witnesses who testified Thursday were Lindsay Schartz from Farmers Bank & Trust, where Central Prairie Resource Conservation & Development had accounts, and Kansas Bureau of Investigation Agent Clint Hawkins.
Central Prairie RC&D, based in Great Bend, operated Central Prairie Honor Flights as a nonprofit program to raise money and arrange trips for World War II veterans to travel to Washington, D.C., to see their memorial. Miller started as a volunteer in 2008, became a paid employee in 2009 and became the honor flight program manager in 2011. The national program dropped Central Prairie Honor Flights in April 2012, citing poor bookkeeping and other concerns.
When the preliminary hearing began in March, Central Prairie RC&D board treasurer Stacy Neilson testified that she compared the Central Prairie RC&D’s account statement with the Farmers Bank statement on July 31, 2012, and found two different amounts — with more than $110,000 missing from accounts.
When testimony resumed Wednesday, Agent Hawkins said Miller had a “scheme” where she got the board to approve checks to venders such as Sports Impressions, National Honor Flights, Miami Air International or AMC Charters, then changed the payee name and deposited the checks to her own account at American State Bank. “The payee was LaVeta Miller, or sometimes just her account number.”
When people on the board were reimbursed for expenses, they provided receipts and vouchers, Hawkins said. But checks that ended up in Miller’s account didn’t have the vouchers.
When a search warrant of Miller’s residence was served, Hawkins said he found a check to SymbolArts (maker of challenge coins, pens and other promotional products) that had been altered with correction tape or fluid. It was for $3,427.32.
Other checks went to Miller’s daughter, Lisa Wyatt, or to Clark Conway, allegedly for expenses. But board members told Hawkins they told Miller they could not afford to hire Wyatt as an employee, and Neilson testified in March that the board had only authorized one payment to Conway. In some cases, Miller’s minutes don’t agree with board members’ recollections, although minutes were approved by the board. Members believe they were altered, Hawkins said.
Judge Alvord commented that the Central Prairie RC&D Board made some mistakes, such as when it decided not to have external audits. “Things were not done well by this board,” he said. “If there had been (an audit), we might not be here.”
Miller became the board’s secretary, and provided bank statements at monthly meetings. That changed to summaries at some point, and the financial information started being entered on QuickBooks.
Checks were supposed to be signed by two people, but Miller would tell board members of upcoming expenses and they would sign blank checks at their monthly meetings.
Matthews said Miller violated the trust of her board.
“Unfortunately, RC&D bears some responsibility for this,” Matthews said. “They did it because they trusted her. The defendant acting on her own isolated the board from financial information. She became the secretary so by default she became the bookkeeper and person signing checks.” She also told the board it did not need an outside audit.
“The defendant was able to manipulate the books and the people to her own financial advantage,” Matthews concluded.
Anderson said he realized under the rules of a preliminary hearing the state does not have the same burden of proof as it does at a jury trial, and that the case would move forward. “We have serious questions,” he said. “The entire board had access to all the receipts, the check register, month after month, and access any time.”
Several things happened during the time Miller worked with Central Prairie RC&D, Anderson noted. Director Dan Curtis had Mark Collins come from Topeka and do something to the computer. Some records went missing, and some are still missing. When the board decided it wanted to put financial record on QuickBooks, “records had to be re-capsulated,” he said.
The Central Prairie RC&D office moved from one building to another, adding to the confusion. Then, “Mr. Collins shows up,” telling Miller that Curtis wanted her to give him computer access. After that, “she would leave, and find a computer turned on (when she returned).”
After Miller was told to hire Clark Conway to transfer records, “he discovered a remote access computer control was installed on her computer.”
However, he said the defense is not accusing Curtis or Collins of taking the money. Matthews responded that in that case, whatever they may have done is not the issue.
Miller had the authority to reimburse expenditures made on behalf of Central Prairie Honor Flight, including reimbursements to herself, Anderson said.