By Sharna Johnson: CNJ staff writer
Curry County Treasurer Rhonda Bookout was indicted Friday on the charge of tampering with public records, a fourth-degree felony, according to District Attorney Matt Chandler.
Bookout surrendered to law enforcement following the indictment. She was released on a $5,000 appearance bond around 3 p.m., jail officials said.
If convicted, she could face up to 18 months in prison and a $5,000 fine, Chandler said.
Upon the advice of her attorney and in agreement with county officials, Bookout voluntarily placed herself on leave without pay, Chandler said.
Bookout’s home phone had been disconnected Friday afternoon and she could not be reached for comment. She did, however, issue a written statement through her attorney, Hal Greig.
“Based upon my high esteem for the citizens of Curry County, and my desire to remove any appearance of impropriety concerning the county treasurer’s office, I have decided while this process proceeds forward that it would be best for me to take a leave of absence without pay,” Bookout said in the statement.
“This way, you, the citizens of Curry County, can be assured that the treasurer’s office will operate for the best needs of the county.”
Bookout turned in her keys to county offices on Friday, according to County Manager Lance Pyle.
A grand jury found probable cause existed “that Curry County Treasurer Rhonda Bookout intentionally altered and falsified public records with regard to the amount of revenue actually received during the Curry County Fair,” Chandler said in a press release.
A search warrant served on Bookout’s office Feb. 14 stated Bookout had made entries into accounting records that a deposit had been made when it had not. The warrant also said she shifted figure amounts from a miscellaneous account to cover a shortage in the fair fund account.
The grand jury was convened to investigate approximately $11,000 in unaccounted-for fair funds, Chandler said.
The investigation into the unaccounted-for fair funds is ongoing, Chandler said.
“At this point Mrs. Bookout has not been indicted for the taking of the unaccounted-for fair funds, the state auditor is still assessing that,” he said. “We believe the investigation into the unaccounted for fair funds is certainly far from over.”
“The New Mexico State Police, the state auditor, (the district attorney’s office and county officials) are working hand-in-hand to attempt to locate the unaccounted-for fair proceeds to determine if they’re missing … That investigation is still moving forward,” Chandler said.
Pyle said the state auditor is continuing to review the 2007 county fair revenue as requested. If he deems it necessary to expand his audit, the county will assist in anyway possible, he said.
Curry County Commission Chairman Albin Smith believes the system to protect taxpayer money worked correctly.
“I think there are things to keep these things from happening, but the good thing is, if there is some good, is that it was detected,” he said. “That should add confidence in everyone’s perception of government.”
Smith said much of what has occurred regarding the unaccounted-for fair funds has been new territory for the commission and has been a learning process.
“I would really like to hope that when this is all said and done, that Rhonda will be cleared of any (wrongdoing),” Smith said.
Pyle said he is confident taxpayer money is well cared for.
“We as county officers are concerned regarding the unaccounted for funds and we’re going to do everything we can to get to the bottom of the situation,” he said. “The county receives audits each year, we have a financial (manager) who is a certified public accountant and I’m very confident in the individuals that we have employed at the county.”
Pyle said the treasurer’s office is small, with only three employees and the treasurer.
“We’re like a little family. You spend more time with your coworkers than you do your family,” he said. “I would expect it’s hitting (Bookout’s colleagues) hard.”