Fraudsters scammed the city of Tenino out of $270,000 last year, wiring the money to Houston and then overseas. According to Mayor Wayne Fournier, the city agreed to loan $23,000 to what they thought was the Washington Municipal Clerks Association in order to pay for some expenses for their 50th anniversary celebration.
“It was unusual, but it was presented to us by the staff member as something that’s typical,” Fournier said. “It was a very small ask and really didn’t even pop up on the radar of city council or myself.”
How that $23,000 ballooned to more than 10 times that amount? That’s where Fournier says things get fuzzy.
“I don’t have an answer to that. That’s where things go awry,” he said. “So exactly how it occurred is still trying to be understood.”
The FBI and Washington State Patrol are currently investigating the matter, although it’s unclear when those investigations will conclude.
It took the city weeks after the initial approval last spring to realize what was going on. The staff member who was fooled by the fraudsters — individuals Fournier said used fake email accounts and stolen personal information — has since resigned.
Although the incident took place months prior, Fournier took to Facebook to confirm the rumors in December, after criticism from former mayors D. Jean Pettit and Mike Brown. The two — along with resident Shaun Brown — wrote a letter to the editor published in The Chronicle on Christmas Eve questioning how the $23,000 “loan” was not only never reimbursed, but ended up as a $270,448 payment in the city’s budget.
“Our concern is that there appears to be no documentation to justify this expenditure,” they wrote. “Expenditures of public funds must have a documented reason and justification for the expenditure.”
The letter prompted Fournier to post online confirming the “cyber-scam” and assuring residents that the city has since adopted policy changes recommended by their insurance provider to prevent any future attacks.
Fournier suspects that the city’s recent fame, spurred by their scrip program, put a target on the city’s back.
“This last year, with the wooden money program, our name has circled the globe hundreds of times. The city of Tenino has been in Russian state media, they were quoting me, Al Jazeera, BBC,” he said. “And then we’ve put our name out there in the world and gained a lot of notoriety, and there’s dangers to that.”
The financial blow may cause long-term impacts if the city isn't able to get the money back. Fournier is confident that the city’s cyber-fraud insurance policy that they signed up for earlier last year will be a “saving grace.” But mediation over the insurance claim won’t begin until March. Until then, he hopes the city’s healthy budget will provide a safety net.
“We’ve been pretty diligent about putting away funds and making sure we have enough money in reserves. So we’ve been able to kind of absorb the impact, and it hasn’t had an effect on the budget for 2021,” he said. “We expect (the stolen funds) to be put back into the city’s coffers before there’d be any long-term effects.”