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Former Safety Harbor official charged with grand theft

SAFETY HARBOR — Former city finance director JoAnne Ryan was arrested Monday after a three-week investigation by the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office.

Ryan was fired Aug. 20 after it was discovered that she made 44 unauthorized transactions on her city-issued American Express card since October 2007 totaling $12,909, most for travel relating to the Clearwater Green Wave AAU basketball club her daughters played for.

She even used the credit card to pay for the use of a limo service, according to documents from the city.

"She said she used the card for personal reasons and then submitted reimbursement checks,'' Assistant State Attorney Gregory Groger said. "And then she pulled the reimbursement checks out of the daily deposit. We suspect there wasn't enough money in her accounts to cover the checks.''

Groger said the investigation went back to October 2007, when about a dozen employees were issued American Express cards to purchase items for the city. He said Ryan admitted to investigators that she stole the money.

He said Ryan "has paid all or most of the $12,909 back.''

She was charged with one count of grand theft, a third-degree felony. She faces a maximum of five years in prison but because she has no prior convictions, she could get probation.

She was released Monday afternoon on $5,000 bail and will probably be arraigned within a few weeks.

Despite the allegations, Ryan's lawyer, Ronnie Crider, said his client is not a bad person, and is "really well-liked in the city.''

"She's been an extremely loyal employee for Safety Harbor for 24 years and she's anxious to get these matters resolved,'' he said. "She's been active in the community and has a lot of support in the community. We deeply regret the charges and she is going to do everything she can to resolve them.''

Ryan, 48, could not be reached for comment.

A mother of four, she had worked for the city for 24 years and was its finance director for 18. Her salary this year was $99,798.

One of her subordinates, Matthew Schmelzer, an accountant for the city since 2002, resigned two days after Ryan was terminated.

Before leaving, he was questioned by investigators and city officials, yet his role in the theft, if any, is still unclear.

Schmelzer, 58, lives in Tarpon Springs. He was paid hourly and made $39,208 per year.

Reached by phone Monday, Schmelzer told the St. Petersburg Times he had no comment. He referred a reporter to his lawyer, Kitty Grubb of Seminole. She had no comment either.

"We're still cooperating with the State Attorney's Office and will continue to cooperate,'' said City Manager Matt Spoor.

Eileen Schulte can be reached at schulte@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4153.

Former Safety Harbor official charged with grand theft 09/08/08 [Last modified: Thursday, September 11, 2008 3:00pm]

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