The Benton County Attorney's office released the following statement:
"On November 21, 2023, criminal charges were filed by the Benton County Sheriff's Department against Amber D. Bell, the former City Clerk for the City of Atkins Iowa.
These charges include:
Unlawful Use of a Credit Card, in violation of Iowa Code Section 715A.6(2);
Felonious Conduct in Office, in violation of Iowa Code Section 721.1; and
Ongoing Criminal Conduct, in violation of Iowa Code Section 706A.2(4).
A CRIMINAL CHARGE IS MERELY AN ACCUSATION AND THE DEFENDANTS ARE PRESUMED INNOCENT UNTIL AND UNLESS PROVEN GUILTY IN A COURT OF LAW."
The Unlawful Use of a Credit Card, under $1,500 is an aggravated misdemeanor.
Felonious Conduct in Office, a Class D Felony
Ongoing Criminal Conduct, a Class B Felony
In February of this year, State Auditor Rob Sand released a report concerning Bell. It was discovered that the city had more than $51,000 in improper disbursements with $21,255.38 unaccounted for.
State Auditor Rob Sands appears to be one of those elected officials that are earning his pay. The special investigation into Atkins' former City Clerk, Amber Bell, raised a lot of questions for the little town.
Amber Bell's husband EJ Bell is currently serving the town as a city council member.
Auditor Sand also noted in his report that because City records were not sufficiently maintained, "it was not possible to determine if additional amounts were improperly disbursed or if additional utility transactions were improperly recorded or not properly billed and/or collected. The procedures described above do not constitute an audit of financial statements conducted in accordance with U.S. generally accepted auditing standards. Had we performed additional procedures, or had we performed an audit of financial statements of the City of Atkins, other matters might have come to our attention that would have been reported to you."
The state reported this information to the Benton County Sheriff's Office, the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, the Benton County Attorney's Office, and the Iowa Attorney General's Office. Bell was booked at the Benton County Jail on Thursday.
The City of Atkins, placed Bell on paid administrative leave by the City Council on November 23, 2020 after the Atkins City Council was concerned about bank reconciliations that were not prepared, bills not accurately presented to the City Council, and utility billings and collections were not properly handled, payroll issues, vendor payments, and insurance benefits provided to individuals. Because of the concerns, the City Council approved hiring the Office of Auditor of State to review the City's operations.
Resigning on January 4, 2021 Bell signed a Voluntary Resignation and Release of Claims document to resign from the City effective December 21, 2020. Be sure to read about her separation agreement and the issue that Sands' had with that.
Here's a breakdown:
$51,598.59 in improper disbursements
* $9,074.24 of unauthorized payroll costs resulting from excess wages, excess comp time payments, holiday bonus checks, and separation agreement payments issued to Ms. Bell;
* $7,717.90 of reimbursement checks issued to Ms. Bell for health insurance and other costs;
* $21,291.37 of net insurance premiums for coverage of City employees that were not properly deducted from the employees' payroll;
* $3,275.25 of improper purchases made with the City's credit card, late fees, and interest;
* $3,799.16 of improper payments to vendors and cash withdrawals; and
* $567.83 of late fees and interest to IPERS.
$21,255.38 in unsupported disbursements
These were composed of transactions for which the City could not provide supporting documentation.
-reimbursements to Ms. Bell
-purchases made with the City's credit card
-purchases from vendors
Sands office said, "Disbursements were classified as improper if they were personal in nature or not necessary or reasonable for operations of the City. Disbursements were classified as unsupported if appropriate documentation was not available or it was not possible to determine if the disbursement was related to City operations or was personal in nature."
Unapproved checks Issued to Amber Bell
Bell's annual salary was set at $52,000 on July 1, 2015 for the position of City Clerk/Treasurer. 238 checks totaling $316,694.58 were issued to Ms. Bell during and after her employment.
-154 of the checks issued to Ms. Bell for payroll and comp time payouts, 143 were approved by the City Council. However, 11 were not.
-45 checks issued to Ms. Bell for an amount that did not agree with her authorized pay. Total improper disbursements were $4,285.25.
-2 payroll checks exceeded her authorized salary amounts by $670.64 and $58.94.
-1 check included $207.04 of excess wages. 11 of the 12 remaining checks were each for $.40 less than Ms. Bell's authorized biweekly salary.
- 5 checks exceeded her salary in amounts ranging from $25.60 to $48.40.
-12 which Ms. Bell prepared were for $87.87 in excess of her authorized gross pay
-6 checks for $91.20 were in excess of her authorized gross pay.
-2 checks totaled $242.52 and $452.48 in excess pay
-2 checks issued to Ms. Bell included gross pay for comp time payouts
-5 "I don't remember any instances of that". comp time checks were improperly disbursed to Bell and she stated,
A total of $4,285.25 of improper gross pay was identified
IPERS and FICA and Improper Disbursements
- $914.18 was improperly paid on Bell's behalf.
- $567.83 in IPERS Late Fees and Interest were paid by the City because required IPERS reports were not filed and required contributions were not remitted on time.
Health Insurance Reimbursement
-$6,740.70 in unsupported reimbursements, of this $ 587.52 was excessive reimbursements
The total FICA improperly incurred by the City for these payments totaled $1,145.92.
Separation Agreement Payments and Unemployment
-A check for $10,652.13 was issued for Separation Pay, but did not go through the payroll records making this amount tax free.
-Bell reported 8 hours of unpaid time, resulting in a check for $226.24, however after comparing her timesheets, no such time was found to have been unpaid.
-240 hours of overstated Comp time in the amount of $6,787.20 was paid out. Bell recorded comp time even though she had used vacation or sick leave during the same week, which was not in accordance with City policy.
Bell, voluntarily resigned from the City's employment and the City expressly states that it will not contest any claim for unemployment benefits made by Bell.
The City paid $23,305.00 for Bell's unemployment insurance benefits for claims she file for February 2021 through June 2022 and from February 2022 through September 2022. She also received $5,100.00 of Federal Disaster Unemployment for February 2021 through May 2021.
State Auditor Rob Sand's office stated that because the City of Atkins agreed "not contest unemployment claims filed by Ms. Bell, it was not a prudent use of City funds."
-Timesheets were not available for the first six months of Ms. Bell's employment.
-Timesheets should have been reviewed and approved by the Mayor.
-12 timesheets did not include evidence of the Mayor's review and approval.
-17 of 63 bi-weekly timesheets for the period did not include evidence of the Mayor's review and approval.
-January 2016 through July 2017 timesheets always recorded eight hours of "regular time" and/or paid time off each day
-9 timesheets show she periodically began "flexing" her time in May 2019 by working more than 8 hours some days, but less than 8 hours other days. In many of these instances, the time she recorded for the week totaled 40 hours.
-Bell began as a salaried employee, but subsequent raises were listed as an hourly rate. Hired in July of 2015 her salary was $52,000 and increased by January of 2020 to $58,822.40.
Sands' office was unable to determine if the information recorded in the payroll system and used to determine Ms. Bell's gross pay is accurate.
$2,035.75 Improper purchases:
- $50.00 purchase from Nail World in Cedar Rapids for a manicure, food and restaurant purchases, and video on demand purchases.
$12,190.18 Unsupported Purchases
- included purchases from Wal-Mart, Target, Michaels, and Fleet Farm.
$1,239.50 City Credit Card Payments, Late Fees & Interest in 41 instances
$677 in cash withdrawals
$850.00 in donations - One payment was made to an elementary school labeled "Tax Exempt" and in the memo, "Garden Project." Two payments to the Benton County Extension, one labeled "Donation for 2019 DIS Camp."
$170.16 in 5 late fees and/or interest charges.
$1,000.00 payment to Hansen Custom Homes on July 20, 2015 and other Payments to vendors for which there is no supporting documentation, and the vendor is not typical for City operations.
-Other unsupported disbursements identified range from $83.18 to $1,034.50 and were issued between October 23, 2015 and February 28, 2020. The largest unsupported disbursement was a payment to Justice Electric Co. The remaining unsupported disbursements include three payments to individuals, a purchase from Sam's Club, and two cash withdrawals.
Personal Credit Card Payment
- $633.14 payment was posted on December 24, 2016 to a credit card account held by Ms. Bell
Utility Bills were also Optional
-$27,941.53 in unbilled and uncollected utility bills resulted in lost revenue to the City,
-$23,526.53 of billings that should have been billed for services but were not
-$4,270.00 of fees that were not properly billed to customers.
Unbilled Late Fees
- 243 instances totaling $3,645.00 occurred where late fees should have been billed to utility customers but were not. Because the $3,645.00 should have been billed and collected by the City but wasn't, it is included as an unbilled and uncollected utility charge.
- 84 instances totaling $1,245.00 where late fees were not billed to utility customers during the COVID 19 pandemic and as a result of the derecho that caused substantial damage to the City. These instances were identified during the months of March 2020 through January 2021. However, because the Council took action which authorized not billing the late fees, the $1,245.00 identified is not included in the Non-Sufficient Funds
NSF Fees applied to some, not to others
- 45 instances occurred where payments from utility customers were made by checks with insufficient funds. 25 of the 45 instances identified a NSF fee was not added to the applicable utility account which total $625.00.
-$15,685.00 for 18 utility accounts described as "snowbirds" accounts which were not properly billed administration fees and/or the sewer debt and landfill fees
Unbilled and Uncollected Utility Charges
-$7,841.53 for 10 accounts where a utility bill was not generated and sent to the customer. 7 of the 10 accounts had months without billings that extended past January 2021 until the new City Clerk identified the problem and took corrective action.
- 1 account was not being billed properly and had a credit applied reducing the customer's balance due by $145.00. This reduction of $145.00 is considered uncollected utilities.
- 10 adjustments were made to 8 utility accounts
- 7 of the 10 utility accounts with gaps in billings were also in arrears for the billings they had been billed for.
-With the assistance of the current City Clerk, Sands' office found that the City had 299 accounts that were past due in May 2021.
(The current City Clerk and Council have now implemented procedures to follow established policies regarding shutting off services to delinquent accounts and established payment plans for 14 accounts. Since May 2021, the City has collected $24,040.05 of past due collections for the utility accounts for which payment plan agreements were established.)
Mishandled funds for Public Purpose
Payments for which the public purpose served was not clearly documented included:
- 3 payments to Sam's Club for Annual Membership Fees of $135.00
- 4 payments to the American Legion Auxiliary for:
$681.50 - Annual Fireman's Dinner - 55 meals @ $9.00 each & Social treats
$683.00 Firemen's Dinner - 55 meals @ $495.00 & Social Treats
$745.00 Annual Fireman's Dinner - 62 meals @ $9.00/plate & Social Treats
$645.50 Annual Fireman's Dinner - 60 meals @ $9.00/plate & Social Treats
In a statement from the Mayor of the City of Atkins Bruce Visser, it said in part, "Even before this report was released, the City had already put internal processes in place based on the counsel of our legal and financial advisors. It should be noted the City has routine annual audits conducted by the State as is required by law. This was a special audit requested by the City to look more closely into the city financial records. The Atkins City Council will consider the recommendations made by the State Auditor's Office and take appropriate action."
If you would like to read the full report from the State Auditor, click HERE