Code Enforcement Officer Admits Theft

FULTON, NY – A city employee in the Fulton Code Department has admitted to stealing cash that she received in her office for rental permits and contractor licenses. According to her own statements to police, Rita Higgins says that she has been skimming money for the past two to three years.

Higgins, 57, of West Fourth Street South, Fulton, was arrested Monday and charged with four counts of first-degree tampering with public records, a class-D felony, and four counts of petit larceny, a class-A misdemeanor, following an investigation that was conducted by Fulton police.

Investigator Michael Curtis said that the investigation began recently after another city employee approached police with concerns that perhaps the code department books weren’t being properly maintained.

“Something didn’t look right with the transactions,” Curtis said. “So we looked at them line by line.”

In a statement to police, Higgins admitted to taking money, primarily for rental permits, that were paid in cash.

“Over the past 2-3 years, I have been taking cash payments for rental permits and I would keep the cash and not turn it over to the city,” Higgins said. “I would keep some of the cash paid but not all of the time. When the landlord would pay I would put the cash in my pocket or purse.”

Higgins said that she took money once a week or less.

“Each time was about $60 but never more than $90 in cash at time,” she said. “Over the last 2-3 years, I think it was about two thousand dollars.”

“I also kept the ($25) fees from contractor licenses about ten times,” Higgins added.

Higgins said that when she kept money, she would keep track of it in the code office records. She said she wrote the fee was paid in “cash” on the receipt and by check on the records kept at her office to conceal what she‘d done.

Higgins said she was taking the fees to help her son, who is on workman‘s compensation and living with her. In total, she estimated that she has taken $2,750 over the past two to three years.

Curtis explained that because of the way Higgins reported the fees that she was stealing, it wouldn’t have been immediately obvious that there was a problem.

“It is not as obvious as you think it would be,” Curtis said.

While the deposits for fees were transferred to the city chamberlain’s office, Curtis said the paperwork for the transactions were not.

“Their record keeping is for their office,” Curtis said. “Those papers stay in house… and wouldn’t go any further.”

Fulton Mayor Ronald Woodward said that the city will make immediate changes in those practices.

“It is going to be a lot different,” Woodward said.

Rather than have individual departments take money for permits, fees or licenses, Woodward said he would rather have all fees paid to the chamberlain’s office and a receipt brought back to departments as proof of payment.

“This is not going to happen again,” he said.

Woodward said Higgins began her employment with the city in the chamberlain’s office Feb. 14, 2000. She transferred to the code office in 2002.

Higgins was suspended Monday pending the resolution of the charges. If found guilty, Higgins will be fired. Woodward noted that the city would request reimbursement of the money as a stipulation of any agreement made with the court, as it has done in similar situations with past employees.

“This is one of those unfortunate things,” Woodward said. “Sometimes good people make poor decisions.”

Woodward said that he has known Higgins and her family for years.

“I love them all,” he said. “But my main loyalty is what is best for Fulton. There is no other way that I could have handled this.”

Woodward noted that the theft does not affect any of the permits or licenses.

“That is entirely separate,” he said. “That is not their fault. … We will have to look everything over and make up the loss.”

Curtis said the matter remains under investigation at this time.

“Everything will have to be gone through,” Curtis said. “At this time, we are not sure if there will be additional charges.

Higgins was arraigned in Fulton City Court by Hon. Spencer J. Ludington and released on her own recognizance. She is scheduled to return to court Nov. 19.