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Former assistant to mayor facing charges in scheme

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Felicia Bell (center), a former assistant to Blytheville Mayor James Sanders, was arraigned in District Court Tuesday morning on charges of theft of property and second-degree forgery. Also arraigned was Leonard Woods (left), who is accused of a scheme against the city. Woods is the son of Blytheville Finance Director LaVera Kuykendall. Both Bell and Woods were released on an own recognizance bond and will appear Dec. 31 in Circuit Court.
Felisha S. Bell, former executive assistant to Blytheville Mayor James Sanders, is facing charges of theft of property and second-degree forgery following investigations by the Arkansas State Police and the Division of Joint Legislative Audit.

Arrested by Blytheville Police just before being arraigned in Blytheville District Court Tuesday morning, state authorities allege Bell was involved in a scheme to defraud the city by submitting fraudulent invoices, including one for an apparent fake $4,777.07 repair to her brother's vehicle.

As of Tuesday morning, Bell, 40, of Lincoln, Neb., and Leonard Woods (son of city Finance Director LaVera Kuykendall) are the only ones officially charged in the schemes. Woods is accused of fraudulently billing the city for computer services to Bell's city computer. Bell claimed Kuykendall was involved in the auto repair scheme and "had it covered," though the current city finance director is facing no charges at this time.

According to the affidavit for arrest, on Sept. 6, the State Police initiated the investigation upon the request of the 2nd Judicial District Prosecuting Attorney's Office, which was notified by state auditors that they had discovered potential theft during the city audit. The 2012 audit has not been released, but the affidavit indicates items that may be in it.

The affidavit says a receipt/invoice for repair to an automobile owned by Travis Joplin, Bell's brother, dated April 3, 2013, for $4,777.07, was given to the city for payment to Joplin for damages to the vehicle caused by street potholes. According to the report, the city paid the invoice on May 22, 2013; Bell resigned and moved to Nebraska in early June.

"Auditors suspected the invoice to be fraudulent and contacted the repair facility named on the invoice," the report reads. "The facility told auditors they had not performed any work on the Joplin vehicle. The facility provided documents to auditors which clearly indicate the invoice was fraudulent."

Auditors reportedly found another invoice to given to the city, allegedly by Joplin, for $75.90, which was paid on March 14, 2012.

The affidavit says two other invoices were questioned by auditors regarding services provided to the city by Leonard Woods, DBA, Twlight Computer Services.

The invoices were for computer repairs by Woods -- identified as Finance Director LaVera Kuykendall's son -- on a city computer used by Bell, the report says.

One invoice was dated Nov. 13, 2012, in the amount of $929.03 and paid by the city in May 2013, according to the report.

The second, also for computer repair by Woods, was for $511 on Dec. 19, 2012, for the same computer.

The city issued a check for payment of the invoice in the same month; the total paid to Woods, by the city, was $1,440.03.

"Auditors examined the computer and were unable to find new hardware, equipment, or software changes made to the computer," the report reads. "The invoices were specific identifying that Woods had replaced parts and, or modified the computer. A determination was made that the receipts were fraudulent, made only to fraudulently collect money from the city."

The report said Joplin told police he did not have any work performed on his vehicle by the auto repair facility, and he had no knowledge that the invoice existed. He reportedly said he didn't receive any money from the city or Bell.

"He did claim he had given Bell an invoice he obtained for a repair to his vehicle at a Jonesboro, Ark. repair facility," the report said. "He stated he believed the invoice was for around $75, for an alignment to his car from alleged damages from a city street."

The state investigator said in interviews on Sept. 10 and Sept. 16, Bell admitted she was "involved in a scheme to obtain money from the City of Blytheville by giving the city fraudulent invoices."

The report said Bell detailed her involvement, claiming Kuykendall befriended her while she was working for the city, and the finance director was responsible for the fraud scheme.

"She stated Kuykendall told her if anything was ever said, Kuykendall 'had it covered,'" the report said. "She stated, regarding the check to Joplin for $4,777.07, she and Kuykendall provided to the city the necessary documents to receive the check for the invoiced repairs. Once the check was issued, she cashed the check and split the money with Kuykendall. She said she met with Kuykendall outside the city offices in her vehicle, where Kuykendall split the money three ways, giving her around $1,700. She stated she stamped the mayor's name on the check for a signature and then forged a second city employee's signature to the check. She stated Kuykendall told her to give some money to her brother, but she did not do so, stating her brother did not know anything about the scheme."

Bell claimed that Kuykendall was responsible for all the fraudulent payroll documents, and even made her fraudulent payroll documents in order for Bell to get into an apartment, which required the applicant to provide proof of income.

The report said Bell also admitted she had received a check from the city of Blytheville for $75.90, issued to Joplin, which she cashed and kept the money.

"Bell further admitted she was given an invoice from her brother for a vehicle repair in the amount of $75.90," the report said. "She admitted a check was issued to her brother for that amount and she received a check from the city, which she cashed, and she did not give any money to her brother."

"I determined the invoice for $75.90 was legitimate, although Bell improperly received the funds from the city and cashed the check."

According to the report, Bell said she had Woods work on her city computer, but did not receive any money from the payments for repairs.

The state investigator interviewed Woods on Sept. 25, and Woods initially said he had submitted actual invoices to the city for work he had done to Bell's computer, the report said.

"After Woods was confronted with the fact that the equipment he claimed was installed on the computer had not been found he then admitted he had fraudulently billed the city for the payments he received. Woods admitted he made the invoices to get money from the city. Woods indicated he acted alone in the scheme to defraud the city."

The report said Kuykendall denied having any involvement in a scheme to defraud the city.

"She made no admissions to conspiring with Bell, or Woods, to collect money from the city by the issuance of fraudulent invoices."

This morning, Sanders, who is mourning the recent death of his brother, said his office has cooperated with the investigation and will continue to do so.

"Any changes we need to make, we're going to address those changes," Sanders said.

A message left for Kuykendall this morning was not immediately returned.

Even before Tuesday's arraignment, Sanders had taken steps to replace Kuykendall, whose CNA Surety bond expires on Jan. 25 and is not expected to be renewed.

All other city employees are bonded through the Arkansas Fidelity Bond Trust Fund program. Kuykendall needed the separate bond because of legal issues in her past.

In September, Sanders notified the Council that he was taking steps to replace Kuykendall, who he hired in July 2011 to replace retired Finance Director Faye Griggs.

He has reportedly appointed Alfred L. Barnhart of Star City to the position, pending a clean background check.


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