A former customer representative of the St. Johns County Tax Collector (SJTC), who worked at both the main office in St. Augustine and branch office in Ponte Vedra Beach, was arrested yesterday, Aug. 11, for defrauding nearly 600 customers of over $13,000 spanning the course of nearly four years.
Melissa Bush, a 50-year-old St. Augustine Beach resident, was arrested on charges of scheme to defraud property value under $20,000 and official misconduct. She was booked into St. Johns County Jail upon her arrest but subsequently released after posting a bond amount of $2,500.
According to a St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office (SJSO) police report, deputies were notified in April by the Tax Collector office that Bush had allegedly been stealing money from customers. Video surveillance showed her in one particular situation charging a customer too much money for a duplicate driver’s license and placing the cash difference in her purse.
The report states that Bush admitted to the fraudulent activity upon being accused. She explained that she had been charging customers more than the actual fees for several years, destroying the transaction receipts and pocketing the difference to support her illicit drug habits. The report indicates that Bush’s crimes spanned from June 2013 to April 2017. According to SJTC, she was employed with the office starting in December 2007.
“Our office learned of possible irregularities during a random transaction audit,” said St. Johns County Tax Collector Dennis W. Hollingsworth in a press release. “Upon further investigation, it was determined that the perceived discrepancy was part of a pattern. We immediately terminated the employee, launched a full investigation internally and advised both the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office and state attorney’s office.”
SJSO’s investigation concluded that Bush defrauded 593 customers of $13,433.53. The SJTC office said all victims identified in the investigation will receive a complete refund for any portion of their transaction that was fraudulently overcharged. SJTC will be reimbursed by restitution paid to the state attorney’s office.
SJTC noted that this incident has prompted a review of procedures regarding monetary transactions. Several new measures, the office added, have already been implemented, including regular, random audits of customer service representatives’ tills, random drug screening, automated change machines, enhanced security surveillance and supervisor training.
“I have been your tax collector the past 34 years, and never before has this happened under my watch,” Hollingsworth said. “I realize people are fallible, and processes may be flawed, but I believe the measures we have implemented will significantly reduce the likelihood of this happening again. You have placed your trust in me, and I can be certain that we have learned from this, we are a stronger organization because of it and will strive to maintain your faith in our services.”