[This story has been modified since its original posting to include new information. – Ed.]
A Columbus city councilman and his wife have been named in an embezzlement investigation involving Bargain Hunt, located at 2312 Highway 45 North.
A clerk at the store, Sharon Smith, who had been named as the subject of the investigation, turned herself in to CPD late Tuesday afternoon. She has since been charged with one count of felony embezzlement.
Ward 5 Councilman Stephen Jones and his wife, Stephanie, are among seven customers who were not charged correctly for items that they purchased, said Police Chief Fred Shelton at a Tuesday afternoon press conference. The other customers were identified in police reports at Rosa Lee; Theresa Bingman; Stephene Boyd; and Shelli Coley. An ATM card belonging to Jennifer Green was used by an unidentified black male.
Investigators have surveillance video from the store, as well as receipts from ATM and credit cards used in the transactions, Shelton said.
“Basically what happened is that a person would come up to the counter with items to purchase,” Shelton said. “The employee scans that item in to the computer, and then that employee deletes that item from the system and charges the customer only what’s on the register. It looks like a legal transaction, but the clerk deleted what was usually a high-ticket item so, for example, they paid $50 for $200 worth of merchandise.”
The suspect transactions may go as far back as June and involve a current total of about $3,200, Shelton said, although that number may go higher as the investigation progresses.
“We received a call from the store manager on Sept. 25,” Shelton said. “Their loss prevention had started an investigation back around June.”
Stephen Jones was seen on surveillance camera participating in suspect transactions at least four times, Shelton said, and his wife, Stephanie Jones, twice.
According to an incident report distributed at the press conference, in one such transaction Stephen Jones paid $79.99 for nearly $300 worth of items. The store manager showed the police “…Mrs. Smith had rung up 3 items for Stephen Jones. The items included some type of washer for $79.99 an electric fireplace table for $199.00 and a Fanta soda for just a little over a dollar. On the invoice it showed that Stephen Jones only paid for the washer and the electric fireplace and Fanta soda were both deleted off the invoice.”
Shelton would not comment on what items Stephanie Jones, or other customers, allegedly received.
Charges will not be filed against any of the customers, Shelton said.
“We have met with a company representative from Bargain Hunt and their policy is to only seek prosecution and restitution from store employees, and not from any customers involved,” Shelton said. “Our investigators are concerned with pursuing a felony criminal case, and that’s what we’re investigating. It is the store’s responsibility to seek restitution from the customers. We’re not charging the customers.
“We don’t have any evidence that they committed a crime, but we do know that the employee committed a crime,” Shelton said.
Shelton said it was unclear whether any of the customers were connected to the clerk in any way.
When contacted Tuesday afternoon, Stephen Jones disputed the charges.
“I was as surprised as anyone to hear my name involved in the situation,” he said. “I wasn’t contacted prior to the press release by anyone, so I am still learning what I am apparently accused of along with everyone else watching the news.
“I have always paid for everything I’ve gotten from Bargain Hunt, or any other store for that matter,” he said. I am hoping to get the matter cleared up as soon as possible.”