Thursday, January 8, 2015

Harvey school clerk accused of embezzling $75,000, blames armed robber

Just before the winter holiday break in 2013, the accounts clerk at Helen Cox High School reported an astonishing crime. She told investigators that an armed robber showed up at the Harvey school's office and made off with potentially thousands of dollars in cash and checks, all of it collected from students for senior dues, candy sales and other school functions such as dances, according to Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office records.

But after school officials investigated, they pointed to the clerk herself as the culprit. Nieli Hebert, 45, is suspected of embezzling about $75,000 over more than a year, according to a new audit and Sheriff's Office records. Prosecutors are trying to decide whether to charge Hebert with a crime, her attorney said Tuesday.

Soon after Hebert reported the robbery, she resigned. School system officials began to examine Cox's books and talk to other employees. They eventually told police that Hebert might have stolen the money, and the Sheriff's Office arrested her March 31.

Witnesses told investigators that Hebert received cash and checks collected by teachers for the student activity fund. She entered the amounts in her computer and gave receipts to teachers.

Later, however, she allegedly changed the computer entries to subtract the cash amounts, leaving only the check amounts in the school records and depositing only the checks in the school's bank account. Schools officials say they discovered the discrepancies after teachers submitted original receipts, showing amounts that differed from the figures in the computer records. The alleged pilfering began in fall 2012 and continued through December 2013, officials said.

Hebert told police she did not steal any money. She said schools officials might have changed the records to make it appear as though she did, in retaliation for a 2010 lawsuit she filed against the school system for racial discrimination.

Her attorney, Juan Labadie, said no similar financial problems were reported during the 25 years that Hebert worked for the school system. "They never had any problems with her whatsoever. They always passed her financial reviews with the schools perfectly," he said.

He said the district attorney's office is still screening her case.

Despite Hebert's report of an armed robbery at the school, and her subsequent arrest, neither development has been reported in the news media until now. Word of the alleged embezzlement surfaced in the school system's annual audit, performed by the Carr, Riggs & Ingram accounting firm of Metairie and delivered in December to school system officials. Sheriff's Office records obtained in recent days provide other information, including Hebert's name and booking information.  

The school system recouped most of the missing money, $71,060, through insurance claims, officials said. To prevent future similar theft, officials pledged better tracking of school finances and investigations of any accounting changes. The student activity accounting system is now web-based, which means reports may be run from the school system's central office, instead of through Cox's servers, and school personnel may not change the reports.

These types of incidents aren't isolated. In 2011, three former Jefferson schools employees pleaded guilty in federal court to conspiring to embezzle money that should have been spent on tutoring and remediation for students. And at two charter organizations in New Orleans, Lusher Charter School and KIPP New Orleans, employees heisted thousands in school funds in 2011 and 2013.

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