Kathy Nelson, who was charged in October of 2017 with stealing thousands of dollars as an employee of the Oklaoosa County Water and Sewer Department, agreed to a plea Wednesday that includes three years in prison and 10 years probation.
Provisions of the no contest plea also call for Nelson to pay $134,000 in restitution to the county, according to Bill Bishop, the chief assistant state attorney for Okaloosa County. Nelson has agreed to make a $10,000 payment toward the restitution at a June 1 sentencing hearing.
Nelson, a Mary Esther resident who worked for public water systems for 40 years and started at Okaloosa County in 1990, pleaded to the crimes of aggravated white collar crime and organized fraud, a news release from the First Judicial Circuit State Attorney’s Office said.
Billing irregularities in customer accounts overseen by Nelson came to light at the Water and Sewer Department in April of 2017, and a preliminary in-house audit revealed she had not collected at least $57,000 in water and sewer Capacity Expansion Charges, commonly referred to as “taps,” between 2013 and 2017. She was terminated a few weeks later.
A more extensive forensic audit conducted by the Okaloosa County Clerk of Court’s Inspector General’s Office turned up billing irregularities in 83 accounts linked mostly to the same three contractors. Investigators determined of the 83 billing irregularities revealed, at least 56 showed probable cause for criminal charges.
The audit revealed Nelson entered fictitious information, invalid receipts and altered documents in the customer service database to make it appear the proper charges were paid by the construction companies when in fact they were not.
Four local construction companies — Watree Construction/Homes, Tracy Acree Construction, Wyatt Builders and Whitrock Associates — were named in the investigative report that substantiated “county ordinance violations."
The names appeared in the inspector general’s report in a table summarizing “errant accounts.”
Bishop said the state turned up no evidence of any wrongdoing on the part of the builders and several of the builders who received benefits due to Nelson’s illegal activities reimbursed the county to clear up discrepancies in the amounts they were charged.
The state agreed to accept a plea in the case based on Nelson’s willingness to do so as well as “complexities of the evidence, voluminous records, the lack of clarity in some of the department’s records and the recantation of testimony by a significant witness,” the release said.
The witness, Bishop said, was a “girlfriend of one of the builders” who at one time claimed to have seen money exchanged between the builder and Nelson. She later recanted and “couldn’t be clear on why the money was exchanged.”