Platte County Commission seeks criminal investigation of treasurer

The Platte County Commission appears set to file a claim against Rob Willard’s public official security bond after the treasurer declined an opportunity to pay back the remaining funds in a fraudulent wire transfer he authorized late last month. In addition, Willard faces a potential criminal investigation into his actions, although his relationship with Platte County prosecutor Eric Zahnd complicates the proceedings. 

After two days of closed meetings with county attorney Bob Shaw last week, the commissioners sent Willard a letter late on Tuesday, June 14 asking that he “personally, make the taxpaying public of Platte County whole by personally compensating the Platte County Treasury for the shortage caused by the unauthorized wire transfer which you implemented.” The letter goes on to ask for reimbursement of county expenses occurred addressing the matter, specifically attorney fees.

In addition, Zahnd received a letter from the commissioners requesting an investigation into whether or not the transfer of $48,220 — $28,000 of which the county has since recovered — violated Missouri statute governing responsibility for county treasurers.

“The criminal act was committed by the individual sending the email,” Willard said. “As for me, it was a mistake, not malice.”

Zahnd issued a response letter on Wednesday, June 15, telling commissioners “the prosecuting attorney’s office is not an investigative agency.” He suggested reporting any potential crime to either the Platte City Police Department or Platte County Sheriff’s Office.

Elected in 2012 to the treasurer’s spot, Willard previously worked in Zahnd’s office, leading the commission to petition judge James Van Amburg for the appointment of a special prosecuting attorney. Zahnd’s letter indicated that he would recuse himself from any potential review of investigative reports due to his prior working relationship with Willard.

According to Platte County presiding commissioner Ron Schieber, sheriff Mark Owen indicated he would look into the investigation. Willard said in an email to The Citizen that Owen had contacted him, as well.

The investigation would center on a unique wire transfer made Friday, May 27.

A series of emails to Willard from an account spoofing Schieber’s county email account requested the $48,220 be wired to pay for a tax consultant. A report issued last week from Platte County auditor Kevin Robinson detailed mistakes made in initiating a “no-token wire transfer,” used just twice in the last 12 months, led to the transaction going through just hours before the start of Memorial Day weekend.

Generally, the county’s process of paying out funds includes a verification of accounts with the auditor’s office followed by receiving authorization from two of three commissioner signatures.

The auditor would then receive the request again to perform a double-check before any funds were wired.

Willard admits to bypassing that procedure in this case due to the implied urgency of the transaction denoted in the scam email, and without the second authorization from his deputy treasurer, he initiated the no-token transfer.

The commissioners cited Missouri State Statute 54.140 for the basis of their request for a criminal investigation. The wording reads, in part, “It shall be (the treasurer’s) duty to pay out the revenues thus subdivided, on warrants issued by order of the commission, on the respective funds so set apart and subdivided, and not otherwise; and for this purpose the treasurer shall keep a separate account with the county commission of each fund which several funds shall be known and designated as provided by law; and no warrant shall be paid out of any fund other than that upon which it has been drawn by order of the commission.”

If found to be in violation, Willard could face a misdemeanor charge with potential punishment of a fine between $100 and $500 and vacation of office.

“I know the public is anxious about this and I know there are a lot of opinions, but the commission is working through the process,” Schieber said at the commission’s regular meeting Monday, June 20. “We want to be very open in providing the public with information. This is a bad situation and we will continue to work to recover the money and put gates in place to prevent things like this from happening again.”

The request for repayment of the remaining $20,220 plus attorney fees included a deadline of seven days, which would have been up Tuesday night.

According to Schieber, the commission received no indication Willard would personally make the reimbursement, meaning the claim against his bond would likely start. The previous recovery came with Wells Fargo sending $20,000 back to the county’s account at UMB Bank.

The commission previously indicated using cooperation between the effected banks, an FBI investigation, insurance claim and bond claim to try and recover the money. Schieber said the insurance claim remains active, but that proceeding with the claim against Willard’s bond is part of the process.

According to state statute, a county treasurer must have a bond to hold the office.

“I’ve spoken to different people in the field and there’s a variety of opinions,” Willard said when asked if the claim against his bond could put his status as an elected official at risk. “It is premature to make a claim on the bond, particularly when to my knowledge it appears that the traditional avenues of making an insurance claim haven’t been pursued. I find it perplexing.”

Schieber said the commission continues to pursue all “appropriate avenues the county and commission have” for recovering the money. 

“The county will be made whole on the remaining funds,” Willard said. “There are currently discussions about how to make that happen that’s in the best interest of the taxpayers.”