Roberts Communications, a veteran Tampa public relations firm, is trying to clean up a mess of its own.
In a lawsuit filed in Hillsborough County, the company accuses former controller and shareholder Kimberly A. Doane of embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars from it over a 10-year period. The suit claims Doane, 42, secretly opened a corporate charge account at Sam's Club and used it to buy personal items such as a pinball machine, home spa, prescription drugs, cigarettes, computer games, clothes and liquor. She allegedly was able to bury the charges in the company's books via a complicated accounting scheme. Clients were unaffected.
"She was a long-term employee, so it was a complete breach of trust," president and CEO Colleen Chappell said in an interview Thursday. The suit also accuses Discover Card and Sam's Club parent Wal-Mart of negligence for failing to detect the alleged fraud.
Doane, who has no criminal record in Florida or her native Michigan, called the lawsuit "totally bogus." In an interview Thursday, the Valrico resident admitted using the Sam's Club account to buy personal items but claimed she did so with the encouragement of company founder and chairwoman Deanne Roberts — a former chairwoman of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce — who Doane says authorized the account's creation and used it herself.
CEO Chappell called Doane's response "pure fabrication to cover her theft." She said the 24-employee company wouldn't have referred the matter to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement last year if its founder had been involved.
Doane has bounced around a bit since Roberts Communications forced her out in February 2007. She spent several months at Cork & Olive, an upscale wine store chain based in Tampa, where she also served as controller. Director of operations Stephanie Nelson said Thursday that Doane proved underqualified for the job but stole nothing. "She just up and left, and we were happy with that," Nelson said.
Shortly after, Doane went to work for Dunedin-based Pioneer Hardwood Flooring. Owner Erick Malkasian, who says he met Doane while doing some work for Cork & Olive, hired her to get his firm's books back in order after suffering an embezzlement incident of its own. But Doane didn't do a good job, Malkasian said, and after several months of his "micromanaging," she got fed up and quit.
Doane's resume claims she "assist(ed) in the discovery of over $180,000 in fraudulent checks issued by (Pioneer's) prior vice president."
Malkasian called that claim false. "The discovery was made months before she even got here," he said.
Doane, who lives with her husband in a four-bedroom home they purchased for $151,000 in 2001, oversaw Roberts Communications' books and computer systems during a period of rapid growth at the 30-year-old firm. Since 1997, the company has tripled its staff to 24 and nearly doubled its annual revenue to $3-million.
She was rewarded for her loyalty. Toward the end of her 10-year stay, Doane was named a principal of the firm and given an ownership stake. Though the stake was small, it was exclusive. The only other shareholders were founder Roberts and CEO Chappell.
But for reasons Chappell declined to spell out, Doane, who is not a certified public accountant, soon fell out of favor. In December 2006, the firm repurchased her equity stake, and in February 2007, all parties agree, she was offered a severance package and asked to leave.
At some point — Chappell and Doane disagree both about the timing and the reasons — Roberts Communications brought in a CPA to conduct an audit of the books. When the auditor discovered Doane's alleged fraud, Chappell said Thursday, the company withdrew the as-yet-unexecuted severance deal.
On Thursday, Doane vowed to countersue her former employers if necessary. "It was all Deanne (Roberts)," she said, "her permission, her conspiracy."
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Scott Barancik can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8751.