UF Foundation thefts at $1.1 million

Published: Friday, January 23, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 23, 2004 at 1:03 a.m.

A former vice president of the University of Florida Foundation charged in October with embezzlement is now believed to have stolen $1.1 million over an eight-year period.

Police originally suspected Kenneth Hillier, 56, of Jacksonville of writing four large checks to himself over a span of 11 months totaling $700,000.

Hillier was fired from his job as chief financial officer of the university's nonprofit fund-raising arm on Sept. 16 and later charged with five counts of grand theft.

Updating the state's Board of Governors on Thursday on the status of the case, UF Vice President for Development Paul Robell said Hillier is believed to have written checks to himself, the largest being for $250,000.

During the same meeting, officials with Florida A&M University, which was embroiled in what was believed by some to be a major financial scandal, reassured board members that university's unbalanced books discovered late last year were not caused by fraud or theft.

FAMU President Fred Gainous said an accounting mistake that has been corrected caused a $3 million discrepancy in a construction fund. A $1.8 million discrepancy on its financial statement was blamed on a software problem.

At UF, an electronic process of laser printing two signatures on the checks - enlisted for the sake of efficiency - is believed to have enabled Hillier to cash checks undetected.

But the prospect that a check for $250,000 could be easily passed with laser signatures alarmed board member Steve Uhlfelder, a Tallahassee lawyer.

"Nobody should be laser signing checks at that level," Uhlfelder said.

Robell stressed that the organization's procedures had not been followed. To prevent something similar from happening in the future, Robell added that all checks now require two manual signatures.

It is unknown why the occurrences went undetected for so long, although Robell said Hillier is believed to have started out "slow."

Apparently, auditors failed to detect the missing money.

Board member Miguel De Grandy, a Miami lawyer, asked Robell if the foundation plans to sue the auditors. Robell didn't answer the question.

"We have retained outside counsel," Robell said.

The foundation expects to recover all of the money. The university stopped payment on a check for $228,000. Another $440,000 has been seized by the State Attorney's Office. Insurance, which covers losses up to $1 million, Robell said, is expected to repay the balance.

Hillier was charged in October with four counts of first-degree grand theft and one count of second-degree grand theft.

The first-degree counts all involved the theft of more than $100,000, while the second-degree count was for an amount higher than $20,000, court records show. Hillier worked at the foundation 15 years, ending up in the position of assistant vice president for administration-finance.

"It is our hope the individual will go to jail," Robell said.

Janine Young Sikes can be reached at (352) 337-0327 or sikesj@gvillesun.com.

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