by Ivan Foley
Rob Willard, the Platte County treasurer duped in an email scheme that resulted in $48,200 of taxpayer money being wired to a scammer, says he will not be resigning.
Public criticism of the treasurer on social media has been understandably heavy since the incident came to public light last week. The county commissioners have openly talked about the county “needing to regain the trust” of taxpayers while pointing out the treasurer failed to follow proper procedures. Multiple callers to this newspaper have indicated the treasurer should step away from the position to which he was elected in 2012.
“I don’t think resigning is the appropriate course of action to take,” Willard responded during an interview with The Landmark when asked if he feels he should step down.
“My energies have to be fully dedicated to seeing that this issue is addressed and taken care of. My focus now is to do everything I can to make the taxpayers whole again.”
Willard is seeking reelection this year. He is unopposed on the ballot. The filing deadline was in March.
A piece of good news did arrive Monday. Wells Fargo Bank returned just over $28,000 of the $48,000 to the
county’s general fund at UMB bank.
But even county officials say the return of a portion of the money is only masking what is an embarrassing and confidence-shaking incident.
“It’s good news to recover (some of) the money. But it does nothing for someone not following the process,” said Ron Schieber, presiding commissioner. “This shouldn’t happen in Platte County. We’re better than this.
“It is troubling and disturbing that this took place. The public has a right to be concerned,” Schieber added. “Everybody in this county knows a bill can’t be paid at the request of one commissioner.”
On the Friday afternoon before Memorial Day weekend, Willard fell for a series of messages sent from a spoof email account purporting to be Schieber, the presiding commissioner. By the end of the day, Willard had authorized the $48,200 wire transfer from the county’s general fund at UMB to be sent to a Wells Fargo Bank account in Florida. The business name on the account? Shmonah Trust in Tamarac, Fla.
Willard admits he sent the transfer without following the county’s procedures and protocol for paying bills.
“That was a mistake on my part. I thought because of the time-sensitive nature of the transaction from what I thought was the commissioner, that’s why I took the actions I did. That was clearly a mistake,” Willard said.
The bill payment process, under county policy, involves the authorization by at least two commissioners. The payment request is then routed to the county auditor’s office to verify funds are available in the particular account. A batch is then generated to the collector’s office which generates a warrant, then the clerk’s office “contacts us (the treasurer’s office) to say this batch is ready to be paid,” Willard said.
“It seemed urgent. The writer (purporting to be Schieber) seemed under a lot of pressure. I think that’s what was weighing on my mind,” Willard told The Landmark.
The fraud department for both banks became involved after Willard alerted the county’s bank to the scam late in the day on Friday.
The county is not certain how the $28,000 came to be recovered, but the assumption is that the banks’ fraud departments were able to recapture a part of the transaction amount.
The matter was reported to the FBI and an investigation is said to be underway. The county has indicated it will pursue recovery attempts through the treasurer’s surety bond and the county’s insurance.
“UMB is working with Wells Fargo to get the wire reversed. Their fraud departments are involved,” Willard told The Landmark early Monday afternoon. A few hours later around $28,200 of the $48,200 appeared back in the county’s general fund account at UMB.
The first email to Willard from the account purporting to be Schieber came in at 1:47 p.m. on Friday, May 27.
“Are you available? Wire transfer needs to go out. Also what is the balance of the General Fund Account? Let me know when you are ready. Reply as soon as possible.”
At 2:22 Willard responded with: “Available. Funds were ach’d but it looks like there was an additional amount. Checking now.”
At 2:32 the spoof account wrote to Willard: “We need to pay a consultant today in the amount of $48,220. Let me know when you are ready so I can send account information to you.
At 2:34, Willard wrote back: “I thought that this was in connection to the bond transaction--everything went out on that.”
At 2:36, the scammer’s account replied: “Nope this is a new consultant from the state on taxes, I can’t talk on the phone right now. Let me know when you are ready so I can send account information to you.”
At 2:37, Willard responded: “Send over the information. I’ll get on the phone with UMB and see what I can do.” Then one minute later, Willard sent another email to the spoofer saying: “And if anybody has a PO (purchase order) or something explaining this I’d appreciate it.”
At 2:40, the spoof account wrote: “Here is the information. Let me know when its done. All supporting documents including P O and invoice will be sent to you. I have all of it with me.” The email then lists the bank name as Wells Fargo Bank, an account number, a routing number, the business name of Shmonah Trust with an address of 2005 North University Dr, Tamarac, Fl 33321.
At 2:48, Willard responded: “Wire transfer out--waiting for confirmation call. Confirmation #8538.
At 2:54, the scammer sent the message: “Have you confirmed already from the bank?”
At 2:56, Willard wrote to a person named Lanie Sedlacek at UMB bank: “Looks like they need you to confirm or Matt Sanders to confirm the amount of $48,220.
At 3:26, Sedlacek wrote to Willard: “I’ll send you confirmation when I see the wire debit. Thanks!”
At 3:27, Willard responded to Sedlacek: “Thanks!”
At 3:30, Sedlacek send to Willard: “The wire has posted to your account. Have a great weekend!”
At 3:50, the spoof account wrote to Willard: “Are you done with the confirmation call now.”
At 3:52, Willard answered the scammer with: “Yes. Looks like me (sic) email to (you) didn’t go out. Confirmed at 3:30 p.m.”
While this was going on, Schieber was on vacation in South Dakota. On a lake. His cell phone was on shore.
Willard had sent a text to Schieber’s phone at 2:36 p.m. saying: “Could you call at office or my cell phone? Not sure what the payment for a consultant is for.”
He never heard back from Schieber but continued the process of authorizing the wire transfer.
When Schieber did get access to his cell phone and found text messages from Willard concerning the request for the wire transfer, he told Willard he had no idea what Willard was talking about, that he had sent no emails.
At 5:44 p.m., Willard then sent an email to Sedlacek at UMB: “Lanie, please call my cell phone immediately. My instructions for him from the commissioners was a hacked email. Wire was fraudulent.”
Platte County wasn’t the only Missouri county hit by the attempted email scam on Friday, May 27. At least seven other Missouri counties received similar bogus emails. But Platte County is the only one that was duped by it, Schieber pointed out.
Barton County, Kan. was taken by the scam recently, for nearly the exact same amount of cash that was scammed out of Platte County.
Platte County officials say the county’s technology department is confident the county’s bank information was not accessed and no email accounts had been hacked. A “spoofed” account is not a sign of a hacking. It is an outside party mimicking an account to make the phishing attempt.
The email address listed for the spoofed Schieber account came up as email@example.com. Schieber’s county email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
At a meeting last Wednesday afternoon at which the scam came to light, Beverlee Roper, first district commissioner said: “My question is how does $48,000 go out of this building on this email train, per our procedures? If those are our procedures, we definitely need to change our procedures.”
Willard answered that the procedures were not followed.
Roper also pointed out that on the day of the scam was going on, she was in town and available if Willard had attempted to contact her. Schieber and Duane Soper, second district commissioner, were both out of town on that day.
“We have to earn the public’s confidence back,” Schieber said Monday during the county commission meeting. “And we ask for your patience while we work through this difficult time.”
“The ultimate cause of this loss was failure to follow policy and procedure,” Schieber said in an interview after the meeting.
Roper pointed out that individual county officeholders like the treasurer are individually elected and have control “over their realm.”
“There were processes in place,” she said, to prevent such a thing, but those processes were not followed by the treasurer.
“In the future should the county need to obtain debt for some reason it may cost us more because of this,” Roper added.
“I would hope this is a big lesson the county treasurer has learned,” Schieber said when asked if he had confidence in the county treasurer. “It’s not up to me to judge confidence. It’s up to me to try to govern money and the county commission is doing what we can to try to recover that money.
“I would hope the treasurer learned a valuable lesson. There is no protocol that allows authorization of any money to go out of this county via email,” Schieber said.
The presiding commissioner added that the county auditor is conducting a review of the treasurer's office.
“The county commission is anxiously awaiting a report on his review,” Schieber said.