WRAL Investigates

Stolen, damaged property costs North Carolina millions

A State Bureau of Investigation database gives insight into the churn of accidents, crimes and misfortunes that befall state property, ultimately costing taxpayers money.

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Storm debris

Trees, bushes and other vegetation along North Carolina's highways accounts for some of the most costly damage inflicted on state property over the last three years.

Since 2009, $845,675 of the more than $7 million in state property reported damaged, stolen or misused were trees illegally cut down by the side of the road. 

"A lot of times, companies go in and cut trees where they are not supposed to," said Nicole Meister, a spokeswoman with the Department of Transportation. Sometimes businesses are trying to make their signs or billboards more visible. Other times, a developer or landowner isn't aware that the state owns the shrubbery and trees they hack away.

When such illegal cuttings happen, they are entered into a State Bureau of Investigation database that records what was damaged or stolen, the value of the missing property and whether the property is eventually recovered. There they join a roster of stolen golf carts, missing guns, embezzled cash, burned buildings and other items gone missing.

The data is not always precise. Agencies don't always attach a dollar figure to their loss and sometimes values attached to the items lost seem inflated. For example, Appalachian State University reported a computer hard drive missing and pegged the value at $15,000, way more than the typical retail value of such items. A spokeswoman for the university said the cost estimates were based on input from industry representatives and "included the cost of specialized computer software used in color printing processes."

Still, the database gives insight into the churn of accidents, crimes, and misfortunes that befall state property, ultimately costing taxpayers money.

Items large and small

Many of the reports are amusingly specific. On Sept. 8, 2009, East Carolina reported the "theft of cheeseburger and fries," worth $8. UNC Health Care reported the theft of vitamins worth $4.99 on Jan. 4 of this year. A "belt dancer shaker" went missing from Rowan-Cabarrus Community College in 2009 with a reported cost of $1,466.11. 

Other incidents are more serious and make the news in their own right. For example, in November of 2010 someone stole 17 handguns and 6,000 rounds of ammunition from the Basic Law Enforcement Training Complex at Halifax Community College. The Federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms offered a reward for clues in that case. 

When it's unclear whether state property has been stolen or intentionally damaged, agencies report it as "misused." There's no legal definition for this category, although a spokeswoman for the Department of Justice says it is a "common sense" definition.

The most eye-catching case of "misuse" came in 2010 and involved $442,012 in federal stimulus funds overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services. 

Officials with the department say that case involves a Battleboro-based nonprofit that was set up to help out-of-work people find jobs. The State Bureau of Investigation was investigating the nonprofit and its former director, Jackie Savage, in connection with misusing grant funds. 

A spokeswoman for the SBI says the matter is still under investigation. Health and Human Service officials say they're working through the Attorney General's office to try to reclaim some or all of the money. 

Missing cash

Browsing through the data, certain trends pop out. Many departments have reported thefts of copper wiring, pipes and air conditioners, a symptom of a recent boom in scrap metal theft. And small, golf cart-like vehicles used in grounds maintenance seems to be regular targets for thieves.

And many agencies, especially universities, have reported thefts of "currency" or cash.

For example, in June of 2010, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill reported $11,479.85 had gone missing.

In that case, a 55-year-old university student store employee was arrested, according to Randy Young, a spokesman for the campus' Department of Public Safety.

"Refund money for objects that were never purchased was showing up on her account," Young said.

In another more recent case, $6,436 was reported stolen on Sept. 13, 2011. Young said he didn't have information on that case because the crime didn't happen on campus and it was turned over to the Durham County Sheriff's Department. He did say that it was money stolen from a UNC account.

And it seems in many cases when "cash" or "currency" is reported missing, it involves an electronic transaction or more sophisticated sort of embezzlement than simply making off with a stack of bills.

Of course, there are exceptions.

The Department of Agriculture had been selling advanced tickets to the 2011 State Fair at University Mall in Orange County. On Oct. 11, department employees stored $11,678 from advance ticket sales in a mall safe. Thieves made off with the entire safe and have never been found, a spokeswoman for the department said.

Thefts in the corrections department

The Department of Corrections has reported the theft or misuse of radio tracking equipment more than 200 times since Jan. 1, 2009.

These STAR units are electronic monitoring equipment worn by some offenders on probation and sex offenders.

"Each time an offender cuts off the ankle bracelet and discards it, loses or damages any portion of the equipment, we report that to the SBI as missing, stolen or damaged equipment," said Keith Acree, spokesman for the DOC.

Acree said the state's contract with the vendors provides for free replacements of up to 15 percent of the units in active use and that the state has never exceeded its free replacement limit. If the state had paid replacement costs of $1,915 per unit, those costs would have added up to around $400,000 in charges to taxpayers.

The prison system also has also reported dozens of cases in which inventory has been stolen from prison canteens, stores that provide sundry items to prisoners. The stores are run by prisoners and prisoners make purchases through cashless transactions involving a debit card, Acree said. 

"Inmates who are found to have pilfered or given away canteen inventory are charged through the internal inmate disciplinary process and can also be charged criminally," Acree said.