Ex-bookkeeper with criminal past
SHELBYVILLE — Trusting Deborah Lake with money is a dubious proposition, if history is a guide.
Yet, bookkeeping is what Lake knows. Perhaps too well.
When Lake moved to the Kankakee area more than a decade ago, she pursued a job in her specialty.
She was hired as a bookkeeper with the Kankakee-based Grundy Livingston Kankakee Workforce Board in October 2008. It’s a small, federally funded agency whose money passes through the Kankakee County government, which oversees the finances.
Lake got her job without a background check. If she had undergone one, the board likely would have discovered a history of embezzlement charges going back four decades.
In November, Lake, now 67, was indicted on federal charges of stealing more than $30,000 from the workforce board. She was fired five years earlier after the county caught wind of her alleged theft, which prosecutors say involved an intricate scheme of false invoices and checks.
What she allegedly stole from the workforce board was small potatoes compared to earlier crimes.
Recently, a Daily Journal reporter visited courthouses in Shelby and Sangamon counties, where Lake’s case files are tucked away. They tell a story of her crimes going back four decades.
According to the court records:
• In the late 1970s, Lake was employed as a secretary at a Ford dealership in Cerro Gordo, east of Decatur. The business closed and she was later charged with stealing $5,000 to $6,000.
• From 1986 to 1987, she worked at Chemical Employees Credit Union in Illiopolis. In 1988, she was charged with embezzling $7,000 from her employer and served two years in federal prison.
• From 1997 to 1999, she worked at Engineering Contractors and Fabricators, or ECF, in Moweaqua, south of Decatur. She was later charged with embezzling $127,886 while working there.
• From 1999 to 2001, she was a bookkeeper at Legacy Audio in Springfield. She owes $318,000 for her thefts there.
On Dec. 5, 2001, Legacy Audio owner William Dudleston received a letter from a probation officer in nearby Shelby County who was working on Lake’s pre-sentence report for the ECF embezzlement. Lake’s position had been eliminated the month before when the company moved bookkeeping functions out of state.
When Dudleston asked about Lake’s crime, the probation officer told him and noted that Lake had served prison time before.
Legacy reported it hired Lake because she was the best qualified of at least six candidates interviewed in 1999.
Learning of her previous crimes, Legacy Audio hired an accountant to look at its books and found $400,000 missing. The courts later determined the amount to be $318,000. Court documents don’t explain the difference.
To commit her crimes, Lake used a stamp containing Dudleston’s signature and removed copies of canceled checks from Legacy’s bank statements. The money went to herself or her personal creditors.
Lake also was accused of unauthorized use of the company’s credit card for the benefit of herself and family members. And she gave herself inappropriate reimbursements from the petty cash fund. Some of the money, according to court records, was used to pay for her children’s college education.
In April 2003, Lake, a Decatur-area native, received a 10-year prison sentence for her crimes, but apparently served about half of that, likely getting credit for good behavior while locked up.
It was unclear exactly when Lake was released from prison. The state Department of Corrections declined to release the date, citing a state law that keeps such information secret.
After leaving prison, she owed $127,886 in restitution to ECF in Shelby County and $318,000 to Legacy in Sangamon County.
She made no efforts to pay restitution after she was released, court records indicate.
Sangamon County never pursued the money for Legacy, while Shelby County was aggressive, according to court records.
In March 2010, while Lake was working at the Kankakee workforce board, Shelby County issued a warrant for her arrest because she had made no arrangements to pay back ECF.
This prompted Lake to respond. At the county’s request, she provided an accounting of her income and expenses. At the time she made $29,100 a year, with only $140 remaining after basic expenses, according to her income statement. This was to help determine what she could pay in restitution.
Even though Lake had a long history on embezzlement, there was no mention in the documents that she worked as a bookkeeper at the workforce board.
From 2011 to 2017, Lake paid 6 percent, or $8,190, of the $127,886 in restitution she owed ECF. She started her payments three months after the arrest warrant was issued. After she was fired in 2014, her payments fell off. She only paid $250 in 2017. Her last payment was in December of that year.
Last June, the judge granted her request to suspend payments because of “severe health issues.”
Elisabeth Dunbar, now a county board member, was the executive director of the workforce board in 2008. She hired Lake, but said she had no idea about her past.
“We followed up on references. They checked out. She was friendly, great at the front desk,” Dunbar said in an interview. “She was very sweet, kind and grandmotherly.”
About Lake’s past crimes, Dunbar said, “it amazes me that this is the person she is. There was nothing that told me that she was that kind of person.”
Dunbar left the workforce board in January 2011.
The current executive director, LaDonna Russell, said she, too, had no clue about Lake’s criminal past.
“We do good jobs here. I feel like it’s a blemish. I hate having a blemish on my record,” Russell said.
According to federal prosecutors, Lake’s alleged theft at the workforce board occurred from November 2010 to October 2014.
County Board Chairman Andy Wheeler said the county did not do background checks on employees years ago, but they do so now.
“We do them for everyone now. I started that policy about a year or so ago.” he said in an email.
Workforce board employees are not considered county employees, Wheeler said, but the workforce board now also performs background checks.
He said the county will likely have to pay back the federal government the $30,000 that Lake allegedly stole.
If Lake is convicted of the federal crime, it’s doubtful the county will ever see the money from Lake, who now owes more than $400,000 from past cases.
Local officials have no detailed knowledge of Lake’s criminal history. In a February interview, Wheeler said he was told by people involved in the Lake situation that she was charged in another embezzlement matter.
“I have no validity to say that’s the case. But if it were to come up later, it would seem I misled you if I didn’t bring it up,” Wheeler said.
Now, Lake is reportedly living in an assisted living facility and making about $900 a month in Social Security. In court documents, she said she is an insulin-dependent diabetic. Her last known address is in Clifton, an Iroquois County town southwest of Kankakee.
No trial date has been set in federal court for her latest charges. Lake is free on her own recognizance.
Her public defender, Elisabeth Pollock, didn’t return a call for comment.