A Washington County Circuit Court issued preliminary order removing County Collector Carla Zettler from office this week.
On Monday, Washington County Prosecutor John I. Jones IV filed a petition to remove Zettler as the county collector, which the court has preliminarily granted.
Zettler, 50, of Mineral Point, is the subject of a petition in quo warranto —a special form of legal action used to resolve a dispute over whether a person has the legal right to hold the public office he or she occupies— filed Monday by Jones.
The petition alleges Zettler misappropriated more than $100,000 of county tax revenues and used the tax maintenance fund for her personal benefit. Zettler had previously been charged in two cases with stealing, forgery, and official misconduct, which prompted Jones to seek her removal from office. Those cases are still pending.
The preliminary order issued Monday immediately prohibited Zettler “from engaging in any activity, or exercising any authority, as the Collector of Washington County, subject to further order of this Court.”
Zettler has also been banned from entering the County Collector’s offices and conducting any business with that office unless expressly authorized by the court. Zettler has been ordered to respond to the petition within the next 10 days.
The former collector was charged on June 22 with three counts of felony stealing, one count of felony forgery, and misdemeanor official misconduct. Zettler, two collector’s office employees, and one former employee are accused of stealing from Washington County by receiving cash fees for processing trustee property sales.
Following reports of suspected theft in the collector’s office, a forensic audit was ordered by the Washington County Commission on land tax sales. Daniel Jones & Associates completed the audit on May 24. For the four-year audit, there was $107,081 of unaccounted funds, according to the charging documents.
Another felony stealing charge in a new case against Zettler was filed on June 27, alleging she again used county funds to try to obtain deeds to be used in her personal criminal defense of the initial charges.
Zettler’s attorney Lydia H. McEvoy, who previously served as collector for Clay County, provided a statement on her client’s behalf this week regarding the criminal cases filed in the matter.
“In response to the charges filed against her, Ms. Zettler has retained a former Missouri Collector as counsel and looks forward to addressing these matters in court,” Zettler’s attorney said in the statement. “No portion of the State’s case alleges Ms. Zettler took any money for herself or received any personal benefit from the money collected in Trustee sales.
“Following the procedures established by (former collector) Mike McGirl many years ago, Ms. Zettler managed the sale of more than 1,100 Trustee sales without question or concern by any office, employee, or taxpayer,” McEvoy said. “Ms. Zettler has faithfully performed her duties, and the additional arrest last Tuesday reveals a deep misunderstanding of the statutes that regulate Collector’s offices and their budgets.
“Ms. Zettler is confident her day in court will shed light on the good she has done as Collector, and these unfounded charges will be summarily dismissed,” she added.
Along with the charges filed against Zettler, current collector’s office employees Laura Laramore, 41, of Caledonia, and Hanna I. Zettler, 24, of Potosi, were charged with felony stealing and misdemeanor official misconduct.
The official misconduct charges allege that each defendant, “a public servant, acting in her public capacity as trustee for Washington County, knowingly received a fee for … processing trustee property sales, which said fee was more than due.”
The women were initially charged after Washington County Sheriff Zach Jacobsen requested the Missouri State Highway Patrol’s (MSHP’s) Division of Drug and Crime Control Troop C Unit to investigate reports of possible theft last year.
In October, the sheriff reportedly told MSHP investigators a Washington County resident contacted him regarding fees paid to the Washington County Collector’s Office for land tax sales. Jacobsen said the fees had been accepted by the collector’s office in cash and were not deposited into the county’s general revenue fund, according to the probable cause statement.
On the same day, an MSHP investigator interviewed Carla Zettler and Laramore, the deputy collector, about how the office handled Woodland Lake Development lot sales.
Carla Zettler told police that when the former collector, McGirl, was serving as the collector and she was deputy collector, an agreement was made through the county commission to sell Woodland Lake Development lots for $1 plus $99 of associated fees in order to aid their removal from the delinquent tax list, according to authorities.
The investigator states in his report that a review of commission meeting reports by the county clerk revealed no authorization to sell these lots for $1. There was, however, a commission meeting in 2011 allowing the sale of these camping lots for $50.
Zettler reportedly told authorities of the $100 (which her office collected in either cash or money order), $1 went to the cost of the lot. Other moneys went to recording the lot, leaving $23 to the trustee and a $19 fee that went to the county collector’s office employee making the transaction, according to the statement. She reportedly told police she was just doing it the way McGirl did it. She also stated that residents who wanted to get a copy of the Woodland Lake lot lists were charged $5, which went to petty cash, according to police.
The report indicates that state statute prevents a trustee from being paid more than 10% of the sale of a property.
McGirl was interviewed and explained how he handled trustee tax sales and deed processing when he was the collector. He reportedly said the employees were only paid by check from the county (their salary) for performing their assigned job, which included deed processing. He said delinquent lots were sold for $100, not $1, and said the $100 fee was lowered at one point to $50 by the county commission, but it was never $1, according to police.
When the MSHP investigator explained how the current collector was handling the fees, McGirl reportedly said he did not know why they were doing it that way, but that was not the procedure he used when he was the collector.
The MSHP investigator also interviewed the county treasurer, the recorder of deeds, and the former assessor.
The treasurer stated Carla Zettler has never brought her cash for a deposit. She said the collector’s office employees are paid by the county and shouldn’t be paid cash for deed preparation.
Harmon reportedly told authorities that when she worked for the collector’s office, as instructed, she would put $1 in the cash drawer and then separate the remaining cash. She said $30 would go for deed recording, $50 to the trustee, and the remaining $19 was given to the employee who worked the transaction, according to the statement.
She further stated that a money bag was kept in the vault that contained cash. She reportedly said the employees were told not to bring the bag out during audits and were reminded to make duplicate receipts anytime an audit was performed.
Per the report, Harmon said that there was a time someone overpaid $100 on a tax bill. She said Carla Zettler didn’t seem concerned and put the overpayment money in the cash bag, which she said was commonly used to buy office lunches, according to the report.
Harmon reportedly said the $5 fees to get a copy of the Woodland Lake lot tax list were also put in the cash bag.
A forensic audit was ordered by the Washington County Commission on land tax sales. For the four-year audit, there were $107,081 of unaccounted funds.
Zettler is scheduled to appear in court again on April 4 for a preliminary hearing in the two criminal cases against her.
Bobby Radford is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com