Longtime county court clerk staffer indicted on embezzlement charge

Charlottesville wants to put a new sign up at the Albemarle County Circuit Court in Court Square. File photo Charlottesville wants to put a new sign up at the Albemarle County Circuit Court in Court Square. File photo

A former deputy clerk in the Albemarle County Circuit Court Clerk’s office has been charged with embezzlement after allegedly pocketing nearly $14,000 in court fees over four years.

Dayna Awkard, a 24-year employee of the office, was placed on administrative leave and then resigned in March shortly after a tip from an unnamed court employee prompted a state investigation into possible fraud there. She was indicted this week by a grand jury, said Henrico County Commonwealth’s Attorney David Stock, the special prosecutor overseeing the case.

According to Stock, Awkard is alleged to have systematically altered records of financial transactions for civil services, like name changes and divorces, that were paid in cash. By not reporting the payments and then filing fake placeholder receipts, investigators from the Virginia State Police and the state Auditor of Public Accounts believe she was able to take the money, make the numbers add up, and avoid suspicion should anyone skim through the books, Stock explained.

“We don’t have her on video, but the assumption is that she’d take the cash and pocket it,” he said.

The alleged fraud dates back to at least 2009 and involves some 180 records, he said, though he emphasized that the legal validity of those court procedures is not in question.

“She was a trusted employee, and it was a shock and a great disappointment,” said Albemarle County Circuit Court Clerk Debra M. Shipp, who was elected in 2007. Shipp, also a longtime court clerk’s office employee, said she worked closely with Awkard when they were both in the civil department. “It was devastating for our whole office” to learn of the charges, she said.

Shipp’s office has been plagued by bookkeeping and organizational issues for years. Audits dating to 2009 have found errors that amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars in uncollected fees and unpaid state fines. In a 2012 report, the then-head of the state’s public accounting office warned that the persistent problems made the court vulnerable to fraud.

But Shipp has blamed the problems on a lack of staff and a string of personal tragedies that spilled over into her professional life; her son was killed in a car accident in 2011, and her sister and longtime coworker, former deputy clerk Pam Melampy, died suddenly in January 2012.

She also said she’s been told by investigators that Awkard’s alleged fraud would have been very difficult to detect, regardless of her office’s organizational issues.

“The auditors have been here five, six years, and they never caught it,” Shipp said. “I was beating myself up, and I asked the auditor if this was something I should have caught. She said the way it was done, it should have been almost impossible.” Catching the deliberately hidden transactions would have required checking employees’ work daily, said Shipp, something her understaffed office simply couldn’t do.

But Shipp’s rival in her upcoming bid for reelection, Albemarle County prosecutor Jon Zug, said some of the blame lies at the top.

“While I believe it’s true that embezzlement can occur in any business or administration, I also believe the length of time this went on, and the amount of money taken during that length of time was really fostered and enabled by the current court clerk’s lack of oversight and total absence of leadership,” he said.

Efforts to contact Awkard via Facebook and phone were unsuccessful. Stock said he’s been in contact with her lawyer, and expects Awkard will surrender herself to police this week.

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