Charlottesville’s general registrar and a former electoral board member are facing several felony charges regarding the improper use of city-owned cellphones. General Registrar Sheri Owen and former electoral board member Bettye Commander are facing charges of misuse of public funds and embezzlement dating back to 2011.
Investigators say Owen used a BlackBerry paid for by taxpayer money for three years after she left her electoral board position. The city estimates the phone bills to total more than $7,000 since 2011. Charlottesville City Manager Maurice Jones said the failure of internal controls in the voter registrar's office disappointed many people in the office.
“The City of Charlottesville has always been, and continues to be, committed to ensuring that taxpayer dollars are properly managed,” Jones said. “We take this responsibility very seriously. It is for that reason I requested a criminal investigation into allegations of inappropriate use of funds in the voter registrar's office.”
Nelson County Commonwealth’s Attorney Anthony Martin is the special prosecutor on the case. He has been working with the Charlottesville Police Department.
Owen was charged with four felony counts of misuse of public funds, one for each calendar year from 2011 to the present, and two felony counts of misuse of public assets, according to the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office press release. Commander was charged with four felony counts of embezzlement of a Blackberry smartphone and telephone services, one for each calendar year from 2011 until now.
Owen and Commander both turned themselves into the Charlottesville Police Sept. 17.
In a press release, Jones said most City employees “perform with distinction.”
“I’m disappointed that this could go on so long,” Jones said. “All public servants are held to a high ethical standard.”
Jones said the city is conducting an audit to prevent similar occurrences in the future.
“As part of our annual budget process we will ask each department to submit a list of necessary cell phones and provide justification for each,” he said.
Owen’s and Commander’s next court date is currently set for Thursday, Oct. 3.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed two quotes to Councilwoman Kristin Szakos. They were said in a press release by Maurice Jones.