City officials, department heads and staff were immediately
advised that they should not speak to anyone concerning the case,
and for several months the public has been left to speculate on what
happened and how it came about.
Riggs came to city government in
1988 from Abbott & Phillips, where she had worked in their
accounting and computer departments.
She worked under Nita Josserand, veteran city clerk, and when
Josserand announced her retirement in 2003, halfway through an
election term, Riggs was appointed to fill the vacant position.
At the next general election, in 2005, Riggs ran unopposed and
won the position for what would be her only elected term in office.
In 2009 she was on the ballot again, unopposed. But her
aspirations of being re-elected were cut short when on Feb. 9, a
visit from state police investigators to City Hall prompted the
clerk's immediate resignation. The news was a shock to everyone at
City Hall and to the community as well.
During her career in city government, Riggs became an active
member of the Central Illinois Municipal Clerks Organization. Her
history with the organization included serving as its treasurer for
four years, between 1997 and 2000, and secretary in both 2001 and
In November of 2000 Riggs was elected secretary of the
organization for the coming year. In a letter to the Lincoln City
Council, Peoria City Clerk Mary Haynes praised
Riggs for her exceptional leadership skills and said, "The city of
Lincoln is fortunate to have her as its deputy city clerk."
Additionally, Riggs received the organization's Presidential
Award in 1997, 1998 and 2001, and was elected as their vice
president for the 2009 year.
Despite all those accolades, on Sept. 24, Melanie Riggs entered a
plea of guilty to charges of embezzlement. The charges relate to a
period of time between midyear 2007 and the end of January 2009,
during which she embezzled a minimum of $46,650 from the city
The question comes to mind: How could anyone steal an average of
$2,500 per month from any business and no one notice it?
According to the residing city clerk for the city of Lincoln,
Denise Martinek, the means by which money was removed from the city
books was quite complicated. She said: "This was not a matter of a
big pile of money laying in a safe somewhere and her grabbing a few
dollars out of it. She had a very complicated system."
The "system" involved 25 to 30 checkbooks, multiple copies of
checks, a certain amount of money floating from one account to
another, a computer software system that was not being kept current
and not being fully utilized, a lack of checks and balances in the
bookkeeping system, and perhaps just a little too much trust on the
part of city officials.
As Martinek discussed the matter, she pulled documents from a
thick folder to illustrate how the crime was perpetrated. In one
hand she held a copy of a check made out in the amount of $1,200, in
the other hand a second copy of the same check. The difference in
the two copies: one made out to (name withheld) and on the other,
the payee line left blank.
Both copies showed that the check had been handwritten and signed
by Melanie Riggs. In addition, the second signature was that of Les
Plotner, city treasurer, but it was a signature stamp, not a real
signature. The stamp used was in Riggs' possession and she used it
at her discretion.
Martinek explained that Riggs wrote and signed the check, leaving
the payee blank, then copied the check and wrote in the payee on the
copy as (name withheld).
On the real check, she then made the payee "The city of Lincoln,"
took it to the bank and cashed it. The cash, however, never made it
back to the city.
Martinek said that as far as the payee was concerned, the clerk
was paying a bill that didn't exist. While there were a variety of
payees named on the checks, using a business as an example, Martinek
said that when the check was written, there was no bill from that
company and no amount due.
Riggs wrote and cashed checks in this manner on several of the
city's bank accounts. Martinek also said there was a certain amount
of money that was floating from one account to another.
This is called kiting, and it happens when a check is written on
account 1 to cover a check that was written on account 2. Then
another check would be written on account 2 to cover the check that
had just been written on account 1.
What it boils down to is that the money doesn't really exist. It
is just a matter of deposits and withdrawals hitting the bank in a
perfectly timed fashion so that none of the accounts overdraw.
Riggs was able to hide what she was doing because for the most part
she exercised complete control of these bank accounts. She made the
deposits, wrote and signed the checks, made many of the entries
involving these checks in the computer herself, and reconciled the
bank statements each month with only minimal and guarded assistance
from her staff.
[to top of second column]
In addition to all this, the onset of the federal Check 21 law in
2004 meant that at best, the city was getting a very small copy of
the front only of their canceled checks, and nothing that showed who
endorsed or cashed the check, making it all that much harder for
anyone to realize something was awry.
When the state investigation began, it was followed closely by
involvement from the FBI. Martinek said that the FBI became involved
due to the likelihood that at least one of the accounts Riggs was
embezzling from contained money received through a federal grant.
She went on to say that because of the vagueness of some of the
deposits on the official books, it took a while to figure out for
sure whether or not there were federal dollars involved, but the
answer came in the form of the Fifth Street Road project.
Martinek said that even though the FBI had been diligently
looking for the right connection, it wasn't until after she had been
elected and sworn into office that they finally found the piece of
evidence they needed.
It was an agreement between Lincoln and Logan County that the two
entities would work together to improve Fifth Street. Martinek said
she knew the document existed but couldn't find it anywhere in the
clerk's office files, so she finally called Bret Aukamp with the
county and asked him if he had a copy, and he did.
He sent it to Martinek, and from that document she was able to
establish a timeline and start tracking down the money. Once she
found the grant funds, she also had to assist the FBI in locating
checks that had been written during the same time frame as Riggs'
Again, from her large file folder she pulled out a page with
several checks listed that were written between July of 2007 and
January of 2009 and made out to the engineers who have continually
worked on the Fifth Street project.
These were legitimate checks for legitimate services rendered and
proved that while Riggs was stealing money from the city's general
operating fund, there were federal dollars in that account.
On Sept. 28 the United States Department of Justice issued a
press release saying that Riggs had pleaded guilty to embezzlement
and would be sentenced on Feb. 1, 2010.
In the days that followed, Mayor Keith Snyder issued the
following written statement:
I am glad that this sad chapter at City Hall is drawing
to a close. The taxpayers are fortunate in that at least a
portion of the money that was stolen will be repaid.
The heroes in this story are the people who uncovered the
wrongdoing and brought it to light: City Clerk employees
Susan Gehlbach, Brenda McCabe, Doris Anderson, and City
Treasurer Les Plotner. They have had to sit by quietly
throughout this prolonged investigation and provide all of
the city records and information that enabled the federal
government to bring Ms. Riggs to justice.
Over the past eight months they have continued to provide
their usual excellent service to the citizens of Lincoln
while dealing with the deception, disappointment, and
frustration of the prior City Clerk's actions. We are
fortunate to have Susan, Brenda, Doris, and Les as public
servants in Lincoln.
There have been a number of operational, financial, and
technology changes made to safeguard against this type of
thing happening again. All of us at City Hall are committed
to not only abiding by the law, but being the best stewards
possible with the resources entrusted to us by the
Martinek says that who discovered this deception, and how, is not
nearly as important as the fact that it was discovered and acted on
quickly. She added that she and her staff will not be commenting on
the events that led up to the state investigation.
She said that what does matter is that the crime was uncovered,
and in doing so, it was determined first of all, that no other
member of city government was involved; and secondly, it became a
stark reality some changes needed to be made in the way the city's
finances are handled.
Coming in Part 2 of this article, Martinek discusses what is
taking place in City Hall now to assure that taxpayer dollars are
protected against any future similar incidents.
[By NILA SMITH]