Report: Gainesville employee used credit cards to buy $93K in hotels, Brazilian Butt Lift

Natwaina Clark

A new report details how a Gainesville city employee making $14 an hour was able to use city credit cards to spend nearly $100,000 on hotel stays, gift cards and an $8,500 Brazilian Butt Lift for more than a year before anyone noticed.

Natwaina Clark, 33, was charged in March with felony grand theft after authorities say she used city credit cards 177 times to spend $93,609.31 while working in the Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs Department between Aug. 3, 2015 and March 22, 2017.

The 21-page internal audit report dated Thursday outlines the rampant spending, the failure of some city officials to follow policies and how the city plans to implement controls to keep it from happening again.

The report says Clark was hired in August, 2015 as an temporary staff specialist in the parks department despite a 2004 arrest for burglary, fraudulent use of personal identification and a scheme to defraud. The report says those charges were later dismissed based on jurisdictional and speedy trial issues, but says Human Resources chose not to follow up with the Orlando Police Department on the case and didn't share the information with the hiring department. While no policy was violated, the report found the decision to be "insufficient and not a reasonable action."

A month after she was hired, the report says PRCA Director Steve Phillips authorized Clark to have access to a reporting system that enabled her to change the codes for items purchased. In November, Cultural Affairs Manager Russ Etling recommended Clark be given a Sam's Club credit card that she used to buy food items and two, 6-quart cookers for $739.

The report says Etling, against city policy and Visa training, also gave Clark access to his Visa purchase card, or P-card.

Clark's first unauthorized charge on the P-card came on Nov. 23, 2015 when she used it to purchase a two-night stay at a hotel in Stuart, Fla. It says she continued to use the card on hotel rooms, gift cards and other items until Feb. 19, 2017. The report says she used Etling's card 29 times and spent $21,848.21 on unauthorized expenditures during that time.

Clark wasn't done. The report says she was able to obtain cardholder information for a labor crew leader's card in November of 2015, and used it to five times, including on a Miami Beach hotel, for a total of $872 from November until December.

Clark was made a permanent employee in Jan. 2016.

It was about that time that she obtained Parks Manager John Weber's card information and used it seven times between January 2016 and February 2017 for $9,413.95 in fraudulent purchases, the report says.

Also in January, Phillips, the PRCA director, requested that Clark be given her own City Visa P-card with a single-day purchase limit of $2,000 and a 30-day limit of $10,000. She received the card in March after she signed an agreement that said she could only use it for business purposes, the report says.

Yet, in that same month, the report says she made her first purchase with the card to buy a $126-tablet case protector that was later determined to be unauthorized.

She used the card a total of 136 times over the next year for a total of $61,475.03, the report says. A Gainesville Police investigation found Clark created a Paypal account that channeled $41,089.73 to her personal bank account.

The report says Clark used some of that money to pay for cosmetic surgery, including an $8,500 Brazilian Butt Lift, that Clark took time off from work to get.

Clark told coworkers she had a well-off boyfriend that provided her the money for new clothes, makeup and travel, according to the report. It says she told coworkers that flowers she received at work were from her boyfriend when, the investigation showed, she actually bought them from Edible Arrangements for $123 using her P-card.

Clark's unfettered spending began to unravel in March, 2017 when the Finance Department notified the PRCA director of unfavorable budgetary projections and that they needed to determine where the overruns were coming from.

The report says Etling and Clark were looking at purchase records to try and identify the overruns when he pointed out that nearly $2,000 of her P-card charges were going to a Paypal account named "NC83FAMU." Etling realized the account matched Clark's initials, she went to Florida A&M and was born in 1983.

The PRCA staff eventually determined that more than $90,000 had been spent on unauthorized transactions. Clark's P-card was suspended on March 13. When Clark "inadvertently learned" her card was going to be suspended, she called out sick, the report says. On March 20, she went on a cruise and learned the next day she had been fired, the report says. She was charged on March 28 with larceny, a second-degree felony, and scheme to defraud, a first-degree felony.

The report found the parks department's poor internal controls were "easy prey for any new, well-traveled employee."

It found the department had 59 Visa cardholders - 66 percent of its staff - but little oversight on how they used the cards.

"Even the sheer number of cardholders, 66 percent of regular employees, demonstrated that cards were not issued on need; rather, as a rite of employment or status reward for employees," the report says.

The report recommended Phillips, director of PRCA, to be held accountable for his actions and to strengthen controls. The city says disciplinary measures are being taken.

"During his initial interview, Director Phillips expressed a complete lack of accountability, instead blaming his subordinates for the failure to carry out required procedures," the report says. "At his final interview on June 1, 2017, he had realized and agreed that he was responsible for his department's actions."

Phillips remains at the department.

Etling, a manager in the department, was also recommended to be "held accountable" for his actions, even though he initially took credit for finding the fraud, the report says.

"Mr. Etling was no hero in this fraud scheme; rather, an enabler of theft that failed to carry out procedures that he acknowledged by signature he was required to perform," the report says.

Etling is still with the department.

The city says it has made multiple changes in response to the theft. Among them are:

- The Human Resources Department will conduct enhanced background screenings to include criminal and credit checks for P-card holders and those who approve purchaes.

- Budget and Finance will no longer issue P-cards to temporary or probationary employees. It will also limit the number of cards issued to city employees. The parks department has reduced the number of cards in its department by 28 percent.

- Human Resources retraining has already been completed and staffers will undergo refresher training annually. There will also be mandatory training for existing and future card holders.

“The City of Gainesville is focused on aggressive measures to increase public confidence that their municipal government has and will continue to tighten fiscal controls,” City Manager Anthony Lyons said in a statement. “Those measures include ensuring that accurate reporting and sound financial and oversight practices are in place.”

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