OTTAWA — An auditor is supposed to catch financial mistakes and prevent fraud. Tuesday, a grand jury charged two members of the La Salle County auditor’s office with exactly the reverse.

Trial date set in first deputy auditor case

OTTAWA — An entire government office at La Salle County is now under indictment — an unprecedented event that poses issues for prosecutors and…

Tori Artman, 44, of Mendota and Pamela Wright, 54, of Ottawa both could face up to 7 years in prison if convicted of manipulating the county auditor’s payroll and giving themselves overtime compensation they hadn’t earned.

A La Salle County grand jury convened Tuesday and returned three felony counts against Artman and Wright. Details still are emerging, but court records indicate each is accused of stealing less than $10,000 in government funds and conspiring with one another to do so. Artman is accused of taking $1,358.88 and Wright is accused of taking $1,672.86 over roughly 9½ months, from late fall 2016 until late summer 2017.

County records listed Artman and Wright as deputy auditors with base salaries of $50,693 and $49,151, respectively, with total compensation (including benefits) of $72,663 and $56,126, respectively.

There was no immediate word on whether either deputy still is with the auditor’s office because auditor Jody Wilkinson wasn’t talking. A request for comment was issued through Wilkinson’s attorney, Joe Navarro of Ottawa, and there has been no response so far. That may be because Wilkinson, who was not charged as of this morning, was specifically named in two of the six counts.

Artman and Wright additionally are charged with conspiracy to commit theft on a governmental entity. The indictment states that both deputies “agreed with the county auditor Jody L. Wilkinson and other unknown, as of yet co-conspirators to the commission of that offense.”

Several county committees of the La Salle County Board were scheduled to meet at 9 a.m. today and first on the agenda was the auditor’s committee; but there was no immediate indication of whether the new charges would be discussed in open session.

Court dates are pending. Artman posted $1,000 bond cash and was released from custody, according to an intake report from La Salle County Jail. Wright, according to the La Salle County Sheriff’s Office, had not turned herself in as of 9 a.m. today.

The most serious of their three counts is theft of governmental property, more than $500 but less than $10,000, a Class 2 felony with a base sentencing range of 3-7 years in prison. Additionally, both were charged with conspiracy and official misconduct, both Class 3 felonies with a base sentencing range of 2-5 years in prison. Felony counts include the possibility of probation, restitution and/or time in county jail in lieu of prison.

The indictments come on the heels of numerous reports of an extended investigation of alleged payroll manipulation within the auditor’s office.

Reaction from other county officials was beginning to trickle in today. Treasurer Jim Spelich issued a statement saying he was “incredibly disheartened to learn of the alleged abuses of taxpayer dollars in the Auditor’s office,” insisting every government office needs to be fiscally accountable to taxpayers.

“Therefore, as the chief financial officer for the County of La Salle, I am calling on the La Salle County Board to hire an outside, independent forensic auditor to comb through, line by line, all of the county finances,” Spelich said. “In light of these alleged abuses, the people of La Salle County deserve to know how, and if, their hard-earned money is being spent honestly across all levels of county government.

“The best way we can ensure this is the only instance of alleged abuse is to have an independent expert delve into our finances. The people of La Salle County deserve these answers at this highly critical time.”

Other officials were silent on still-pending charges. La Salle County state’s attorney Karen Donnelly said Tuesday there would be no statement from her office after the grand jury adjourned.

Messages left for La Salle County Board chairman Jerry Hicks (D-Marseilles) and board member Doug Trager (D-Ottawa), chair of the finance and fee committee, were not returned before press time today.

Tom Collins can be reached at (815) 220-6930 or courtreporter@newstrib.com. Follow him on Twitter @NT_Court.

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Tom Collins is the NewsTribune Senior Reporter. He can be reached at (815) 220-6930 or courtreporter@newstrib.com.

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