Theft leaves small town of Thayer, Kan., in a big-time pinch

Tony Vining asked Laura Whittley to come to City Hall.

“They’ve found some discrepancies,” the mayor told the city clerk of Thayer, a town of 500 people two hours east of Wichita where blackjack oaks and hills hint of the Ozarks.

The city’s books didn’t add up, and money was missing.

“I’m going to have to suspend you at this time,” Vining told Whittley.

Whittley cried and told him she didn’t do it, Vining said.

More than a year later, the town of Thayer is beyond broke.

It can’t afford to fill potholes in its streets or take care of dilapidated lots. Vining looks at the town he moved to from Los Angeles when he was in junior high school in a different light now. How much will that cost if it breaks?

In part to make up for what Whittley admitted in a plea agreement, the town has raised its mill levy and hiked water rates twice. In April, voters will consider a sales tax increase.

The town’s new city clerk works part time because Thayer couldn’t afford a full-time employee in that job.

On Jan. 1, Whittley will go to prison for a year and one day for stealing $120,000 from the people who flipped and bought hamburgers to help raise money for her when she was burned in a fire.

A U.S. District Court judge sentenced Whittley in Wichita late last month and ordered her to pay back the money without interest.

The 50-year-old wife, mother and grandmother pleaded guilty earlier this year to bank fraud and money laundering, legal terms for pocketing the cash that people used to pay their water bills, for stealing money from municipal court payments and fees for hunting licenses, for using the city’s Walmart charge card to buy diapers for her grandchildren and for cutting paychecks to herself she didn’t earn.

After a bad storm, Whittley faked bills for cleanup work paid in part by money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. She then tried to cover everything up.

Whittley, reached in person at her home, declined to comment for this story. During her Oct. 24 sentencing hearing, she apologized and vowed to do her best to pay back the missing money.

Thayer hadn’t undergone an audit in a long time, since 2000. Too long, some members of the council felt.

KyAnne Phillips, by far the youngest City Council member at 28, pushed for one. So did Vining. But looking at the books kept getting pushed to the back burner.

“Some of the council members felt there was something not right,” Vining said.

People who had forgotten to pay their water bills and then went to pay them were told that their accounts were already marked paid. There wasn’t money when the fire chief needed something.

Then last year, some new members joined the council, and the group voted in May 2011 to go under the microscope.

The town put an audit out for bid but never got a response. In June, the council put it out for bid again. A Chanute firm responded, and the council approved the contract in July 2011.

The firm warned that audits only catch 8 percent of wrongdoing, Vining said.

At 4 p.m. July 28, 2011, the auditors called Vining.

Vining still remembers what time it was, but he had to check records to remember the exact day.

He went to their office in Chanute.

“‘Remember that 8 percent?’” Vining said the auditors told him.

“I just put my head down,” Vining said. “They laid out all the deficiencies.”

Vining got out of that meeting and called Sheriff Jim Keath of Neosho. Vining said he told the sheriff he wanted a full investigation.

On Aug. 1, 2011, at a special meeting, the sheriff and auditors presented evidence to the council that Whittley was a thief. They fired her.

A mayor and city council of five people run Thayer, the only town directly situated on U.S. 169 between Tulsa and Kansas City.

People honk to greet each other on the streets, and Vining, mayor since April 2011, calls people by their first names after using courtesy titles such as Miss or Mr. He said he knows pretty much every one of the 114 children who go to the town’s K-8 school.

Now he’s worried about providing for their futures.

Four lots in town need to be condemned. But Thayer hasn’t taken action because if it did, the property would become the town’s, “and what are we going to do? Write ourselves tickets?” Vining asked on the porch of City Council president Phil Brownlee’s sprawling home.

Brownlee is a former mayor and a retired pastor. He had suspected something was wrong at City Hall.

“City services were really very poor,” he said. “Our street work was beginning to get shoddy. There was no supervision and no money.”

What Thayer has gone through is a good lesson for other cities, small or big, residents say.

“We were caught sleeping,” Brownlee said. “When you don’t ask questions, you’re buying trouble, and unfortunately we bought too much trouble.”

Phillips joined the council in November 2010. The town elected her in April 2011 for a four-year term. Her campaign was simple. She went door to door with a letter that said she wanted an audit of the town’s finances.

Phillips, who works and does the books at her father’s convenience store, Smithy’s Express, said she had pushed for an audit because “nothing was itemized, and we didn’t see bank statements. I knew something was wrong.”

She is concerned about Whittley paying the money back. In court, Assistant U.S. Attorney Mona Furst calculated the city’s loss at closer to $180,000. Vining said they could only go back 21/2 years on the audit. Whittley had been city clerk for 11 years.

Phillips would like to see Whittley apologize directly to the people of Thayer.

“How hard would it have been to say, ‘I messed up’?” Phillips asked. “Is she really sorry? I think she might be sorry she got caught.”