After eight months of whispered rumors and uncertainty, furious residents of a pastoral Chester County township finally got the chance Tuesday to ask how $3.2 million of their money was allegedly stolen by a woman trusted to manage it.
And the Kennett Township leaders whose job it is to prevent such theft spent the three-hour public meeting defending themselves and assuring residents that it won’t happen again.
“We realize that the buck stops here," said Scudder Stevens, chairman of the township Board of Supervisors. “It is our job to do everything possible to fix this mess, and this meeting tonight is just one part of the rebuilding process that began eight months ago.”
The standing-room-only meeting was held exactly one week after former Township Manager Lisa Moore’s alleged crimes were announced by investigators. But the notion that something was wrong first came in May, when the board drummed out Moore, citing “suspicious bank transactions.”
To read what Chester County investigators said Moore did, that’s putting it mildly.
Moore, 46, has been charged with masterminding what District Attorney Thomas P. Hogan called a “long-running, multipronged scheme” that defrauded millions from Kennett Township over eight years.
Moore used the money to, among other things, fund lavish vacations to Europe and pad her retirement benefits, according to investigators.
She is free on $500,000 unsecured bail, and faces a preliminary hearing in February on more than 140 counts of theft, forgery and tampering with public records. Moore’s attorney, Lee Ciccarelli, has said that he plans on “fully defending” against the allegations.
Ricardo Zayas, a forensic accountant hired to investigate the fraud, said at Tuesday’s meeting that much of the alleged fraud happened because Moore was given near-unilateral control of the township’s finances. And when the theft was discovered, Zayas said, he and his staff found that much of the township’s business records were incomplete or contained “inaccurate entries."
Supervisors hired Zayas and other experts to help recover the embezzled funds and promised to tighten up employee oversight going forward. They are determined, Stevens said, “to prevent similar fraud from happening ever again.” Part of that includes a promise of increased transparency, including making regular financial audits available at township meetings.
Those assurances did little to stem the anger from attendees who lined up to ask questions. Some alleged that supervisors missed or ignored previous warnings about Moore’s behavior. Others asked about how much the clean-up would cost the township.
But one of the toughest questions came early on, from former Kennett Square Mayor Leon Spencer.
“Are all of you going to resign?” Spencer asked of the supervisors, all Democrats. “Seems you should resign right now. Some of the things we heard tonight suggest incompetence, and that you do not deserve to be here right now.”
Moore’s alleged scheme was uncovered in April, when investigators from Capital One flagged three years’ worth of suspicious money transfers from a township business account to Moore’s personal checking account, according to an affidavit filed in her arrest.
As supervisors began to dig into records, they discovered that work they had asked to Moore to do was never done, including updating computer software and purchasing insurance policies.
“Almost every day, we found a pattern of lies and deception that shocked us,” Supervisor Richard Leff said. “The more we investigated internally, the more lies we uncovered.”
It became clear, Leff said, that Moore created and maintained an “intentionally confusing system" that appeared to be a safeguard, but actually hid her fraud. She manipulated salary payments and pension contributions, and destroyed township records to hide the deductions, officials said.
The 20-year township employee laundered some of the stolen money by shuffling payments through multiple township accounts, investigators said. She cut personal checks by passing them off as legitimate payment to township vendors.
Moore allegedly “secretly circumvented all township safeguards” reviewed by supervisors, tax collectors, and state auditors, according to Stevens. She began to take small amounts that “grew as she became more proficient,” he added.
All the while, the books, from the outside, “looked fine,” he added.