(Feb. 10) A former bookkeeper for the Washington Asparagus Commission, Eltopia, is under investigation for allegedly embezzling thousands of dollars from the group and from its managing entity, the Agriculture Development Group.

Jenna Watkins allegedly is the Franklin County sheriff’s sole suspect in the case. She has not been charged in the case.

Alan Schreiber, owner of the development group and commission administrator, would not say Watkins’ name, but when asked if she was the bookkeeper who was under investigation, he said, “that person whose name you mentioned — the police confirmed her as the sole suspect.”

“It’s not for me to put her name in the public, though, and it’s not for me to try her,” Schreiber said.

The bookkeeper has confessed to forging several commission checks totaling $63,000, Schreiber said. She wrote commission checks payable to herself.

She allegedly transferred about $30,000 from the development group’s account into the commission’s account, said Jim Middleton, commission chairman. The transfer may have been an effort to cover up some of the forgeries, he said.

As bookkeeper, Watkins had access to the accounts of both companies and to some of Schreiber’s personal accounts, Schreiber said.

Schreiber, Middleton and former commission chairman Kevin Bouchey were the only approved signatories on the commission’s account.

The bookkeeper forged the two required signatures on each fraudulent check, then hid or destroyed bank statements and created false financial statements to present to the board, Schreiber said. He said the commission had safeguards in place that enabled discovery of the fraud.

The forgeries occurred last year and were discovered in December. Schreiber said that when he confronted Watkins, she admitted to the thefts and he fired her. She started paying back the stolen funds the next day, he said.

The commission’s budget for 2005 was $418,000, Schreiber said. The commission applies for some grant funding, but the majority of its funds are from a 1% assessment on asparagus gross receipts at the first point of sale. Most of the missing money came from grower assessments.

Schreiber and Middleton both said the case is complicated and the investigators have a lot to sort out before they determine exactly how much money is missing. Middleton said he was unsure whether the commission’s money would be reimbursed, but Schreiber said he is determined to see that it is.

“The money will be replaced,” Schreiber said. “I will personally pay it back, if I have to.”

Besides Watkins’ restitution, insurance might help repay the funds, Schreiber said.

When asked about the case, Franklin County Sheriff Richard Lathim said he would not confirm details of an ongoing investigation.

Middleton said he has talked to officials in the state attorney general’s office and the state auditor about the case. The commission’s accountants sent a report to the state auditor for further review, Schreiber said.

“I feel terrible about it,” Schreiber said. “My company was entrusted to handle the growers’ money. We were deeply, deeply betrayed by this person.”