For more than seven years, a district accountant stole nearly one in every four dollars that passed through the Rialto Unified School District’s lunch money program.
A lack of internal controls, including a security camera that was not in operation most of the time and shoddy record keeping, allowed Judith Oakes, the former longtime accountant for the school district’s nutritional services department, to allegedly steal more than $1.8 million from the district between July 11, 2005, and Aug. 6, 2013, according to the investigative audit.
Further complicating things was the perception, by school district employees, that Oakes was untouchable due to her personal relationship with school district Superintendent Harold Cebrun, according to the audit by Rancho Cucamonga-based Stewart Investigative Services Inc.
“Ms. Oakes was involved in an open personal relationship with the superintendent of the school district from 2010 to August 2013, which created a work environment wherein she was deemed unapproachable and could not be held accountable by her immediate superiors,” according to the audit summary.
Rialto police arrested Oakes, 49, of San Bernardino, on Aug. 7 at her place of work and subsequently charged her with eight felony counts of embezzlement and eight felony counts of misappropriation of public funds. She pleaded not guilty to the charges. Her next court appearance was scheduled for Jan. 14 in Fontana Superior Court.
The case broke when Oakes’ supervisor, Cindi Stone, saw Oakes on a surveillance camera stuffing a bundle of $2,000 in $20 bills into her bra on Aug. 5 and Aug. 6. Stone notified district risk manager Derek Harris, who then called police, according to the audit and a search warrant affidavit.
Details of the criminal investigation were revealed in the forensic audit (conducted by SIS Investigations) commissioned by the school district after Oakes’ arrest, a complete copy of which was obtained by The Sun on Friday via a Public Records Act request. It painted a picture of antiquated accounting procedures and lax oversight at the school district that allowed Oakes to allegedly steal thousands of dollars from the district on a weekly basis.
Oakes ramped up her suspected illegal activity in 2007. In one work week, from April 30 to May 4, Oakes allegedly stole $16,000, and discrepancies of $10,000 or more per week in that year were not uncommon, the audit shows.
Of the more than $8 million the district collected in student lunch money between July 2005 and August 2013, only $6.2 million was actually accounted for, a difference of more than $1.8 million, the amount Oakes is suspected of stealing.
The audit also found that cash collections and deposits were not compared to actual sales figures, and outstanding checks and deposits in transit to the bank were never reconciled. In addition, Oakes, not the clerk who actually counted the cash, was the one who handed off bank deposit slips to the armored car courier who transported the cash to the bank, implying that Oakes could have written cash amounts on the deposit slips that did not match those of the clerk who actually counted the cash.
A search of Oakes’ home turned up original deposit slips that had been replaced by Oakes and more than $34,000 in cash straps for various denominations. The cash straps are used in the money counting room at the school district to strap specific dollar amounts of specific denominations. The items were found in a large purse belonging to Oakes, according to the audit.
The environment Oakes worked in made it rather easy for her to commit her alleged crimes, according to the audit.
“The private office, which was built for Ms. Oakes,further assisted her embezzlement scheme by providing a private sanctuary in which she could safely take money from her top and put it in her purse and to also steal other monies without being seen by the office staff,” according to the audit.
As a 24-year district employee, Oakes became the sole accountant of the nutritional services department’s funds.
Prior to the 2010-11 school year, lunch money collected from parents at the nutrition services department was sent to schools across the district to handle. But in the 2010-11 school year, a computerized point of sale system was installed in the nutritional services department that allowed the payments to be inputted electronically into student lunch accounts. Oakes is suspected of taking the money intended for those accounts, which was left in her mailbox in white envelopes by office clerks. Auditors suspect Oakes could have been taking up to $100 a week.
“The clerks, who counted the money in the money room, state that it was not until after Ms. Oakes was arrested that anyone ever brought these white envelopes of money from parents into the money room to be counted,” according to the audit.
Oakes was also suspected of stealing cash payments made to the district by a pallet recycling business for broken, discarded pallets. The warehouse manager for the nutrition services department would turn the receipts for those payments in to Oakes, but the cash was never accounted for in deposit slips. Receipts from the pallet recycling business totaling $858.75 for 2012 and $737 for 2013 were found in Oakes’ desk, according to the audit.
Stewart Investigations (Stewart Investigative Services, Inc. / SIS Investigations) made the following recommendations to the district:
- Either contract with a bank to provide cash counting services or have the clerks be responsible for cash counts and not have the accountant, or anyone who has access to the accounting system, participate in the cash counts.
- The nutrition services department should have two bank accounts — a receiving account with an appropriate interest amount, and a clearing account that is to be cleared down to zero at least every month. The rest of the cash would be moved to the cash in a county account.
- Any and all cash collections are receipted into the e-Trition system so the accountant is assured all cash collections are in the system and reliable sales figures can be posted.
“The district has reviewed the audit recommendations and has implemented changes to improve our handling of procedures as it applies to checks and balances,” said district spokeswoman Syeda Jafri.
Cebrun’s attorney, Willie W. Williams, said the information included in the audit is nothing Cebrun has not already disclosed to auditors and to the public in an October interview with The Sun.
“That’s absolutely consistent with what Dr. Cebrun has said to the press, Stewart Investigations (Stewart Investigative Services, Inc. / SIS Investigations) and anyone else involved, and I think that underscores there was nothing nefarious going on where he would be concerned,” Williams said.
Williams, however, disputed the auditors’ determination as to how long the relationship between Cebrun and Oakes had occurred.
“(Cebrun) didn’t become acquainted with Ms. Oakes until the summer of 2011,” Williams said.
As police had already stated, the auditors noted in their report that there was no evidence of Cebrun or anyone else employed by the school district, being directly involved in Oakes’ suspected illegal activity.
Cebrun’s chief of staff, James Wallace, whom Cebrun said was also a friend of Oakes who frequently accompanied them on outings, told investigators he had been in contact with Oakes a number of times after her arrest and considered himself to be “her unofficial counselor,” according to the audit.
Cebrun and Wallace remain on paid administrative leave, Jafri said.
“The district’s interest with respect to any relationship the superintendent and Ms. Oakes may have had is how the relationship impacted the work environment,” Jafri said, “and that issue is a confidential employment matter that the Board of Education continues to evaluate.”