Coast water department workers took customers’ cash and split it, state auditor says

Two former water department workers are accused of taking customers’ cash on water bill fines and meeting after work to split the money.

For about 1 1/2 years, the two city workers voided customers’ cash payments and kept the money, hiding the cash in paper until they could meet and divvy up the money after hours, State Auditor Shad White said.

The embezzlement occurred from March 2015 to August 2016, according to White.

The employees came under investigation after a supervisor noticed each of them had voided a large number of transactions, White said.

Kenya Bowens, 40, and Lakeshia Benton, 38, owe more than $30,000, including investigative costs and interest.

The Sun Herald reported in 2016 the Moss Point Utilities Department had a $3.4 million deficit because workers were allowing bills to go unpaid for years without any service interruptions.

“Family members were coming in and they had a humongous bill to begin with but were being allowed to pay $10 or $20 on the bill, which means that that was never going to be collected and was going to continue to compound itself on a monthly basis to get even worse,” then-Mayor Billy Broomfield said. “In some cases, customers weren’t paying a bill at all.”

He said 13 percent of Moss Point residents had not been paying their water bills and 7 percent more had been stealing the services through illegal direct hookups to the system.

The city “survives primarily off the utility revenue” and when customers don’t pay up, the city is unable to pay to improve services or to do such things as offer incentives for businesses to set up shop there, the city clerk told the Sun Herald.

A grand jury indicted both women on a felony embezzlement charge. Special agents with the auditor’s office arrested them on Friday. They were booked at the Jackson County jail and were being held with no bond pending an initial court appearance.

Bowens owes $11,840.11, excluding the additional costs, and Benton owes $1,912.89, he said.

The city had insured Bowens and Benton for $50,000 in surety bonds while employed with the water department. The bonds are a type of insurance policy for taxpayers when public officials embezzle or otherwise defraud the public of money. White said the bonds make it likely the money will be recovered.

Felony embezzlement is punishable by up to 20 years in prison, a $5,000 fine or both.

Anyone can report suspicious activity involving possible fraud or embezzlement by government workers online at the state auditor’s website or by calling the State Auditor’s Office at 1-800-321-1275.

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Robin Fitzgerald covers real-time news, such as crime, public safety and trending stories. In nearly 40 years as a journalist, her highest honors include investigative awards for covering the aftermath of the fatal beating of a Harrison County jail inmate in 2006 and related civil rights violations. She is a Troy University graduate.