ANSON — Tax Collector Claudia Viles was at her desk as usual Thursday despite the fact the town had filed a lawsuit Monday claiming she had misappropriated nearly half a million dollars.

Town officials say that because Viles, 65, is an elected official who hasn’t been convicted of a crime, they can’t remove her from office or limit her duties.

While town officials wouldn’t comment on the suit filed in Somerset County Superior Court, they haven’t said they hold Viles, who has been the tax collector for 42 years, accountable for the missing money, which totals $438,000 from 2011 to last September.

The investigation continues, both the lawsuit originators and law enforcement officials say.

Viles, interviewed in the Town Office, wouldn’t comment Thursday on the lawsuit or the missing money and left her desk rather than continue the interview.

Her attorney, Walter McKee, responding to a request for comment, said in an email, “This is no great surprise. I will be answering the suit in due course.”

The suit says Viles omitted amounts she collected in excise tax from the town’s accounting system, knowingly recorded inaccurate amounts she collected in excise tax and reprinted calculator tapes with altered figures to make it appear that the amount of money collected matched what was being deposited. She has 20 days from the date the suit was filed to submit a response to the court.

The Office of the Maine Attorney General also is investigating the thefts.

Spokesman Tim Feely wouldn’t comment on the case, but when asked how common this kind of municipal missing money case is in the state, the most recent one he could recall was two decades ago, when Doris Reed, town clerk in Chelsea, was convicted of stealing about $250,000.

Board of Selectmen Chairman Arnold Luce said Wednesday there is nothing the town can do to limit Viles’ responsibilities while the lawsuit is pending, because she is an elected official.

Maine law provides a recall provision for elected officials, but it requires that the official be convicted of a crime against the municipality while in office. Towns can also pass a recall ordinance, but Anson doesn’t have one.

In July the board voted to hold a special town meeting to change the position of tax collector from an elective one to an appointive one, but officials said the change isn’t related to the missing money and the ongoing investigation.

“It’s long been my feeling that the position should be appointed,” Luce said at the time.

The board also discussed implementing a recall ordinance, but since that discussion in July, no date has been set for a special town meeting for residents to consider either a recall ordinance or a change to the tax collector position.

Luce wouldn’t comment on the suit Wednesday, but he said that even though the town is the plaintiff, the suit has been brought forward by the Maine Municipal Association, the town’s insurance provider, and it doesn’t mean town officials think Viles took the money.

The town filed a claim earlier this summer on the missing money and was paid $250,000.

“Once they’ve paid the check, they’re going to go after their money,” Luce said. “The town is the one that had the loss, so (the MMA) is just using the town’s name.”

Eric Conrad, spokesman for the MMA, would not comment on the lawsuit Thursday.

It is standard practice in insurance proceedings for a provider to file a lawsuit on behalf of a client, said Mark Franco, the town’s attorney.

“By virtue of the fact that they received the payment, they’re allowing a lawsuit to be made in their name,” Franco said. “MMA has a right to recover the money, and it has to be made in the name of the town.”

A LESSON FROM CHELSEA

State law provides no information on what municipalities can do if an elected official is the subject of an investigation or facing pending charges. Once convicted, residents can petition to recall an official, but that official can’t be removed by town governing officials.

Many towns, including Anson, don’t have recall ordinances, Rep. Deborah Sanderson, R-Chelsea, said Thursday.

“(State law) does give some recourse, but it’s a high threshold,” she said. “And it should be a high threshold on the state level. Every town has the opportunity to create their own process. That’s what they should be doing, and this is a last safety net.”

Sanderson was the sponsor of a bill in 2011 that tightened the state’s recall law. Chelsea also adopted a charter that included a recall ordinance in 2013.

Both came after Chelsea Selectwoman Carole Swan was charged with extorting $20,000 from a construction company the town had hired to plow and sand roads. Swan was charged and eventually convicted of workers’ compensation fraud and falsifying income tax returns after she failed to declare about $650,000 in income from Marshall Swan Construction, the earth-moving company she and her husband owned, and failing to pay $140,000 she owed in income and self-employment taxes.

Two decades earlier, the town’s clerk, Reed, was convicted of stealing more than a quarter-million dollars in excise tax from 1988 to 1992.

Sanderson said Thursday some oversight over elected officials is vital. “When there are allegations made, the people in the town lose faith in the individuals who are in positions of authority and serve and have access to townspeople’s records, information and cash.”

TOWN DIVIDED

The investigation into the missing money began in March, when town Administrative Assistant Triss Smith reported to police that nearly $77,000 had been stolen from the Town Office in 2014.

Smith, who started working for the town in May 2014, had implemented a computer system that went online in September that automatically credited payments. At the same time, the town also began making deposits of tax money it took in daily.

At the end of the town’s budget year in December, Smith found a $78,645 discrepancy between the amount of money Viles had reported collecting throughout the year and the amount that was actually collected, according to an affidavit related to a search warrant in the investigation.

Smith told police that she first asked Viles if they could sit down and figure out what went wrong, but Viles was “adamant” that she would work it out herself.

In January, the town contacted Purdy Powers & Co. to perform an audit, which confirmed that $76,686 was missing from the 2014 town accounts. That information was reported to residents at Town Meeting in March

In the affidavit, Smith said that when residents paid excise tax on vehicles they registered at the Town Office, Viles would transfer the state’s money to the state, then give the town’s portion to the town treasurer.

Viles would hold on to residents’ checks, frequently cashing them quarterly, a practice that Smith said prompted many residents to pay in cash.

In March, a review of how Viles processes excise tax payments revealed that she wasn’t recording the right numbers even though she appeared to understand how to do the job correctly, according to the Purdy audit report.

Richard Emerson, an accountant for Purdy Powers, met with Viles and Luce and had Viles show him how she processes excise tax receipts, including deposits. Emerson, in the affidavit, said they also reviewed records from 2014, which showed that for several weeks she had done the work correctly.

But after a period, Emerson noticed shortfalls in the amount of money that had been collected in 2014, the affidavit said. The numbers that Viles had recorded added up to higher numbers than what she had listed on the bank deposit slips.

The shortfalls ranged from $6,214 to as much as $21,907.

In April, police seized $58,000 in cash from a safe in Viles’ garage, but she and her lawyer, McKee, say the money is hers, not money taken from the town.

Residents interviewed Thursday show a town divided over what to think about the missing money and the lawsuit.

Michael Everett, 38, said, “It’s pretty sneaky.”

“She had sticky fingers and she got into it and kept getting into it,” he said. “It’s not right, and I think she should get out of there, especially if there is an investigation going on. I think she should be suspended.”

Resident David Kirk agreed. “She’s the one in charge, so she should be the one to blame. I don’t see why she’s still working.”

But Lenny Jacobs, 56, said, “I don’t know what to think, really. I’ve done business with her through the years, and she’s always had a good reputation as far as I’m concerned.”

Jacobs said he found it hard to believe that Viles would steal money, and he said she should be allowed to continue working at the Town Office unless she is found guilty in court.

Jessica Mercier, 27, said, “Until she’s proven innocent or guilty, I don’t see why she shouldn’t work.

“She’s a nice person. A very nice person. I don’t think she took it.”