Polk manager calls for harsher sentences in embezzlement cases

Published 1:50 pm Monday, March 23, 2009

Whitson says he&squo;s had discussions with the district attorney&squo;s office and the SBI and has been pushing for prosecution of this case. He also says he has asked that jail time be served.

&dquo;If any county employee is guilty (of embezzlement), I would rather see them serve time than pay restitution,&dquo; Whitson said. &dquo;The public trust&bsp; has been harmed and an example needs to be made if the person is guilty.&dquo;

A grand jury met in Polk County last week and returned a true bill of indictment to charge Zieler with the crime. Zieler turned herself in early last Thursday morning, when she posted bond and was released. Zieler&squo;s first appearance in court is scheduled for May 26.

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Polk County conducted an internal investigation into &dquo;irregular transactions,&dquo; within the tax office beginning in Sept., 2006 and then turned the investigation over to the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation.

The case took much longer than normal ‐ two and a half years ‐ for charges to be brought after the initial investigation began. Officials say it is not uncommon, however, for it to take one to two years to prosecute a case.

Michael Talbert, Polk County manager at the time, said then, without naming Zieler, that an employee altered tax records through abatement with no documentation to back it up. The fraudulent transactions took place between 2003 and 2006, Talbert said.

Zieler had been a long-time employee who had a good working history prior to the county&squo;s discovery of the transactions, Talbert said at the time.

Polk County has since installed new practices to avoid embezzlement. Shortly after the 2006 discovery, the county installed security cameras in the tax office. Zieler&squo;s charge is the second in the Polk County Tax Office. Another employee was convicted in an embezzlement case in 2002.

Polk has also been the victim of several other embezzlement cases in the past several years, with one in the register of deeds office, one in the sheriff&squo;s office and a few in the school system.