When a retired Houston police officer dies or changes addresses, his or her pension check is most likely returned to the Houston Police Federal Credit Union, a federally insured credit union responsible for, among other things, the majority of accounts held by the Houston Police Officers’ Union. And it happens more often than you might think: The state of Texas alone accounts for more than $2 billion in unclaimed funds, according to the state Comptroller’s Office.
But sometimes that money can slip through the cracks, and that’s how, according to a police union official, former credit union Vice President Cheryl Vickers got her hands on roughly $1.25 million over the span of nearly two decades.
This week the feds indicted Vickers on charges she embezzled close to $70,000 a year in unclaimed funds between January 1997 and February 2015, for a grand total of $1,247,785. Vickers, who worked at the credit union for more than 20 years and had just retired before the missing money was discovered, was vice president in charge of information technology and accounting, a position that credit union officials say allowed her to keep her secret bonuses under the radar.
Word of the alleged scam spread in September, when police union members received a letter from the credit union announcing the investigation into Vickers. In its letter, the credit union assured union members that no active member accounts were affected, HPOU President Ray Hunt told the Houston Press.
Hunt added that his organization would continue to use the credit union.
“We did not remove any of our funds from that credit union, because we felt there was not any type of dereliction of their duties," Hunt said Wednesday. “We know how things can happen.”
The police union itself is no stranger to embezzlement. In 2011, a former member was sentenced to 20 years in state prison for stealing more than $650,000 in union funds to feed a gambling addiction and pay off credit card debt, according to reports at the time. The member used checks to pay his bills, forging the carbon copy beneath the check with the name of legitimate charities, Hunt said.
According to Hunt, investigators were clued in to Vickers’ alleged embezzlement after it was discovered in a random audit. The auditor noticed a check that had been returned to the credit union was later sent over to Vickers, Hunt said.
After further investigation, the credit union noticed that the alleged scheme went back almost 20 years.
With no one asking about the money, it was easy to reroute it elsewhere, keeping it out of state coffers undetected, Hunt said.
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"If you think about it, all these banks that have this procedure, where the checks are supposed to go back to the state treasury, there's a potential that this can happen to all of them," Hunt said. “It's a clever scheme. It can happen anywhere."
Vickers, whose attorney did not respond to a request for comment, was charged with embezzlement from a federally insured credit union, and if convicted, faces up to 30 years in prison, and a fine of up to $1 million.
HPFCU spokesman Daniel Keeney says the credit union expects to fully recoup its losses.
“Despite this fraud, the Houston Police Federal Credit Union remains financially strong,” Keeney said in a prepared statement. “With assets totaling over $600 million, this case will not have a material financial impact on our operations.”