Claudia Viles was a fixture in the government of the central Maine town of Anson for 42 years, elected and trusted to collect taxes – often in cash – with no hesitation, or oversight, until hundreds of thousands of dollars were discovered missing. Late last month, she was found guilty on 13 counts related to the theft of $500,948.

The amount she stole put Viles in “a league of her own,” according to the state prosecutor, but her crime gave her plenty of company. Municipalities, nonprofit organizations and businesses throughout Maine have been targeted by embezzlers, and the cases often share similar circumstances: a trusted employee who had access to cash and was subject to little or no oversight, either by co-workers or computer software. Unfortunately, these circumstances still exist in many Maine organizations. Previous cases should have been warning enough, but they weren’t. After the Viles case, organizations shouldn’t wait any longer to make changes.

The court proceedings in the Viles case covered money stolen from 2009 to 2014. Authorities believe the theft went back further, but the cost of investigating acts prior to 2009, and the slim chance of recovering the money, prevented the town from making sure. And Viles likely would have continued to steal town funds if a new computer system hadn’t put an end to her deception two years ago.

Viles stole cash paid by residents to the town for excise taxes, manipulating an adding machine to change receipt totals. With no one beside herself checking to see who was paying what on a day-to-day basis, Viles was free to take what she could, as long as the annual totals didn’t vary too much from year to year.

That’s similar to cases in the last 20 years in Fort Kent, Norway, Madison, Chelsea, Newport and Somerset County. In addition, in recent years, the Maine Trial Lawyers Association, York County Community Action, a Kiwanis Club in Milo and a public library in Old Orchard Beach were all the victims of embezzlement.

And those are just the ones that were prosecuted – others certainly are settled quietly before allegations are brought to authorities.

In these cases, someone was eventually caught and the theft stopped, but not before money and organizational trust were lost.

It didn’t have to be that way. The points of vulnerability are clear and remarkably consistent – no one employee should be allowed unfettered and untracked access to money, not when internal oversight and technology can provide the appropriate checks.

In the case of municipalities, positions like town clerk and tax collector should be appointed, not elected, making the town’s governing board or top administrator their direct boss.

The town of Anson was warned that they had these deficiencies, but they acted too late. Others don’t have to make that mistake.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.