Credit: File photo

A Lusher Charter School employee who swiped $25,800 in school funds won’t be prosecuted on state embezzlement or municipal theft charges, now that she’s returned the money, but can expect to be arrested and charged with forgery by the end of the month, according to the New Orleans Police Department detective handling the case.

Lauren Hightower, an accountant in Lusher’s business office, stands accused of raiding the  school’s account at Whitney National Bank.

A January 2012 incident report filed with the police said the thievery took place in 2011, and that Hightower had forged the signatures of at least three Lusher staffers on checks she cashed.

The theft came to the attention of The Lens via an audit of the school’s finances that made brief mention of the incident.

The police report said Hightower would be arrested on an embezzlement charge, but Michael Riley, the police detective on the case, said this week that was speculation made by the uniformed police officer who compiled the incident report.

The school launched its own investigation before contacting police and Hightower confessed to school administrators once she got wind of the internal investigation, according to the police report. She was fired from her post but shortly returned the money she’d taken.

“We got the money back through her attorney,” Lusher chief executive officer Kathleen Riedlinger said. “I’m not privy to how she got it.”

Riedlinger said no arrangement was made between the school and Hightower’s lawyer to drop the matter upon return of the money. She said she had assumed Hightower would be charged with theft.

But Riley said that once the school was repaid the pilfered $25,800, the theft charge was “a moot issue,” and a forgery charge became the more appealing and convictable investigation to pursue. “We have a saying: ‘What can we prove in the court of law?’”

“I’m not dismissing the theft,” added Riley, a 29-year veteran of the police department. The forgery is “the means by which the thefts occurred, and that part of the case is open and active. The forgeries are being pursued now,” he said.

An arrest warrant will be issued in the next two weeks or so, he said.  “We’re waiting on supporting documentation that needs to be obtained.”

Meanwhile, Hightower’s accounting certification has been revoked by Louisiana’s Board of Certified Public Accountants, according to the board’s website.

Riedlinger said that, in the absence of criminal charges being brought against Hightower,  Lusher contacted the accountancy board, only to discover that Hightower had already “self-reported” her crime to the board after she was caught forging checks.

Riedlinger said Lusher has answered all questions asked of it by the New Orleans Police Department and is awaiting further information about what’s ahead for Hightower.

“The school doesn’t have any official position on this,” she said, “other than that we reported this to the police and asked them to pursue it.”

Hightower declined to comment.

She is not the only former local school employee with sticky fingers and an ongoing open case.

Riley is the detective on another recent school theft case where an arrest warrant has yet to be issued. Last fall, administrators at the New Orleans Military and Maritime Academy charter school realized that $31,000 had been stolen from the school, through forged checks.

A former employee at the academy, Darrell Sims, was identified as the prime suspect in that theft but has not been charged. The incident was reported to police in late 2012.

“That’s an open investigation,” Riley said. “We’re waiting on supplemental documentation – there’s no rush as to initially getting an arrest warrant put out there.”

The Orleans Parish District Attorney requires a forensic audit of the victimized institution when considering white-collar criminal charges, Riley said. “That takes time,” he said, “and pushes back the issuance of an arrest warrant.”

Riley said the investigations include consultation with prosecutors before an arrest warrant is issued.

“You don’t put the frosting on the cake while it’s still in the oven,” he said. “The arrest warrant is the icing on the cake. By the time an arrest is made, the DA has all the information they need.”

Tom Gogola

Tom Gogola covered criminal justice for The Lens from February 2012 to May 2013. He is a veteran journalist and editor who has written on a range of subjects for many publications, including Newsday, New...