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Former Gretna City Administrator Colleen Lawry had no comment Thursday as she left the Sarpy County Jail after being charged with theft from a senior citizens fund.
Lawry, 49, was charged with felony theft of between $500 and $1,500. She was released after paying $500, or 10 percent of the $5,000 bail set by Sarpy County Judge Jeffrey Funke.
He set a preliminary hearing for June 4. If convicted, Lawry faces up to five years in prison,
The former city official used a debit card to spend $980 of a Gretna senior citizen fund on herself, for purchases from stores including Walmart, Victoria’s Secret and Gretna Wine and Spirits, according to Stephanie Hansen, an assistant Sarpy County prosecutor.
Hansen said the Knights of Columbus had made a $1,000 donation to the senior citizen fund for meals for Gretna senior citizens. None of the money was used for senior citizen meals, she said.
“A woman who works with the seniors had been asking (Lawry) for money to pay for lunches, and (Lawry) kept blowing her off,” Hansen said. “When the woman checked the bank account, only $20 remained.”
Hansen said Lawry had obtained a debit card in her name linked to the senior citizen account and had been drawing out money for purchases at stores, including Walmart, Gretna Wine and Spirits and Victoria's Secret.
None of the money was used for senior citizen meals, Hansen said.
Gretna City Attorney John Green said that revelation was the last straw and triggered Lawry's firing Tuesday night.
“She had abused any good will she had left,” Green said.
Last week, State Auditor Mike Foley filed a report detailing irregularities in the accounting and spending practices of Gretna officials, particularly Lawry.
Green said Lawry, whose annual base salary was just more than $90,000, was not authorized to use the senior fund for anything but the weekly senior citizen meetings in the basement of City Hall.
City officials learned about the purchases during an executive session at Tuesday night's City Council meeting, Green said. The council decided during that session to fire Lawry, he said.
After the meeting, Green and Mayor Sally McGuire met with Lawry at City Hall and fired her. Before Lawry left City Hall, she was arrested by sheriff's deputies on suspicion of theft.
Lawry is being held in the Sarpy County Jail pending a bail hearing today.
Green said Lawry told officials that she set up the senior citizen bank account in late February and mistakenly began using the debit card for her own purchases.
Lawry, he said, told officials that when she learned of the mistake, she went to the bank March 28 and replaced the funds with money from her personal account.
Sarpy County Attorney Lee Polikov said investigators didn't give him any information showing that the funds had been repaid. Even if the money was repaid, he said, that wouldn't negate the misuse of public funds.
“In my mind, repayment is irrelevant,” Polikov said. “Is the money there? We will go through the records and find out exactly when each withdrawal was made and for what purpose and whether any money was ever replaced.”
Green said the city has taken Lawry's name off all its financial accounts and changed the accounts' access codes. The city has also retrieved the car issued to Lawry and other city property.
Green said McGuire will take on Lawry's duties until another city administrator can be hired. Lawry began working for Gretna as an assistant clerk in 2004. She was later promoted to city clerk and named city administrator in 2010.
“The city will continue to investigate all of (Lawry's) financial dealings,” Green said. “We intend to conduct a thorough review.”
Also on Tuesday, the City Council adopted new rules for financial oversight, as recommended by Foley's audit, Green said.
Under the new rules, Green said, the city will:
» Prohibit employees from using credit cards for personal expenses, even if the city is reimbursed.
» Require receipts for reimbursements for legitimate expenses.
» Reimburse city employees for no more than $200 a year for clothes. Reimbursements will be limited to “uniforms, logo apparel or safety equipment.”
Foley's audit examined city finances from October 2010 to January 2012. The audit report said that Lawry:
» Charged $5,074.47 in personal purchases on a city credit card and repaid the funds up to 46 days later.
» Took at least 11 trips outside the state last year and early this year, racking up a total of $13,578 in city-paid expenses. Several trips were billed as economic development research, but the travel was not formally approved by the council.
» Spent more than $800 on clothing she classified as “uniforms,” even though she wore business clothes on the job.
» Reported buying 18.916 gallons of gas in late October for her city-owned vehicle, which has a capacity of 16.9 gallons.
The audit was also critical of city funds spent on entertainment during a trip last May to Las Vegas for the International Council of Shopping Centers' Global Retail Real Estate Convention.
McGuire, the Gretna mayor, issued a press release last week in response to the audit, stating that Polikov's office had determined that the auditor's allegations involved to “policy, procedure and personnel issues only.”
“I am distressed by that,” Polikov said Wednesday. “That's 100 percent wrong. I did not make a determination or even have the information in front of me.”
Foley said Wednesday that Green and the other city officials wanted the auditor to delay releasing his findings until after the May primary, when McGuire is up for re-election. Green declined to comment on Foley's allegation.
Green said Foley's audit helped the city identify areas where it needed to tighten up accounting practices but said it also seemed at times to be nitpicking.
Polikov said Green was trying to minimize Foley's audit.
Polikov said multiple sheriff's investigators are conducting a more extensive probe, based on the audit.
“We need to investigate the auditor's report and be ready to prosecute, if it's appropriate,” Polikov said. “A message needs to be sent to the public that their resources are being protected, and people who attempt to abuse their situation are held accountable.”
Polikov said Lawry's travel expenses, hotel stays, meal expenses and use of a city car warrant further scrutiny.
“I am concerned — because of Foley's report and the charge that came out of the senior center — that this is the tip of the iceberg,” Polikov said.
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