The Southeast White County Water Association is still recovering after its former manager, Diana H. Woodle, was found to have stolen more than $360,000 from the utility between 2011 and 2016, according to its current general manager, Jerry Andrews.
Andrews became the general manager at SEWCO in June 2016, only a couple months after an independent audit found that Woodle and then-field technician Brandon Johnson had made “fraudulent” credit card purchases totaling nearly $50,000. (The other missing money was discovered during a joint investigation by Arkansas Legislative Audit and the Arkansas State Police.)
“We have managed to get our reserve up a little bit” since then, Andrews said. “We’re not fully recovered yet but we’re getting there. We’re still holding our head above water.”
Financial figures obtained through an Arkansas Freedom of Information Act request showed a bank account balance of $253,873.13 at the end of April 2016. Total cash accounts through this June had increased to $776,389.54. Not including CDs, the June 2020 total was $423.941.97 compared to $78,279.75 in April 2016.
Some of the credit for the improvements was given to policies put in place in order to prevent any type of fraudulent purchases from occurring within the company ever again.
“We are very well prepared for any kind of fraudulent purchases,” said Steve Merritt, the SEWCO Board of Directors’ secretary/treasurer. “We have policies and procedures in place where we can’t be defrauded anymore. There’s not chance of theft without knowledge of it.”
Those policies include having to have two people to sign a check at SEWCO, Merritt said. “Every hard check is signed and every electronic transfer has to be approved by the board with an email or text message to go along with it in order to have actual documentation to have back-up for approval.
“We have also hired a new firm and they have a very good track record of monitoring and helping us safeguard. Even just everyday mistakes that are made are immediately caught based on the way our financials are handled. Everything about our entire financial business was changed and safeguarded with double checks and everything is audited specifically. We’ve come a long way with fixing that kind of stuff.”
Despite these improvements, Merritt said customers still are having a hard time trusting the company.
“We still get negative comments and we still have negativity within our users mostly because of what happened,” he said. “The fear is that we have not fixed the problem and that we’ve just covered it up, which is the furthest from the truth. There’s still a trust factor within our users towards us.”
However, Andrews says that negative comments from users have gone down significantly since the arrest of Woodle in 2017. Woodle was sentenced to seven years in prison in January 2018, but was released in November 2018 after going through a re-entry program.
“The attitude of the people has changed over the last four years [since the embezzlement was discovered] and they have really come around to us,” he said. “We now very seldom get a negative comment anymore. The reassurance that things are being done right has benefited our costumers.”
The SEWCO board of directors has stepped up since the arrest and has put many different measures in, some even before Andrews took the job, he said. The board now meets monthly to review finances, something it wasn’t doing before.
“When I first came on board we were having to pay our bills when the money came in,” Andrews said. “We have enough money now at this point where we’re able to pay our bills at the first of the month and not have to juggle around and wait until the deadlines to pay.”
While Woodle’s actions did put the company is a tough spot for a while, things are definitely improving, Merritt said.
“We’re in the best shape we’ve been in for a long time,” he said. “What happened took our infastructure money down super low where we didn’t have money for repairs or big extensions and if we were to do any kind of project, it had to be done with borrowed money. Not that we have a lot of money now, but we can sustain ourselves very, very well. We’re very healthy financially now.”
While SEWCO has done several repairs to its system already like some tank repairs and vehicle replacements, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done, Andrews said.
“We managed to do those repairs and build just a little bit of surplus but not a whole lot,” he said. “We still have a lot of projects we still need to do. We got some line replacement and some right of ways that need to be cleaned, which requires someone with equipment to do, but we haven’t had the funds to do some of that yet.”