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Former Nebraska education department employee charged with theft of state, DECA funds
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Former Nebraska education department employee charged with theft of state, DECA funds

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Prosecutors charged a former Nebraska Department of Education employee with felony theft by deception after a state audit found she made more than $44,000 in personal purchases, travel expenses and cash withdrawals using a DECA credit card and state funds over more than two years.

Nicole Coffey, who began working at the state education department in 2004, resigned May 8, 2018, about two months after education department officials began questioning her reimbursement requests.

She was appointed the state adviser for DECA, a student marketing organization, in 2006 and given a credit card for travel expenses to national and local DECA activities.

On March 30, 2018, state education officials first approached Coffey about her reimbursement requests, and the Nebraska State Patrol interviewed her June 26, 2018. The patrol asked for assistance from the state auditor. 

Lancaster County Attorney Pat Condon said Coffey turned herself in Wednesday morning and made her first court appearance from jail. Lancaster County Court Judge Laurie Yardley set a $2,500 bond. Coffey must post $250 to be released. 

If convicted, she faces up to 20 years in prison on the theft by deception charge, which alleges she stole more than $5,000.

The audit report says Coffey charged $33,617 in personal expenses — including two cash advances that coincide with deposits into her personal account — from Jan. 1, 2016 to April 12, 2018.

She also appears to have asked the Nebraska Department of Education for reimbursements totaling $9,250 for purchases made on a DECA credit card, which the auditor describes as "double-dipping."

During some of the trips she made, the audit says, she stayed extra days after the DECA activity but continued to use the organization’s credit card for purchases totaling $1,717.

In a written statement to the State Patrol, Coffey said she feels terrible about the situation and is eager to fix her mistakes.

“I have loved my job and have tried to uphold its traditions and practices throughout my career,” she said. “I have worked hard to foster relationships with our students, teachers, business partners and alumni to create an organization that was strong and successful.”

She said she often bought food for volunteers and officers, as well as thank-you gifts.

But in hindsight, she said, she was lax in managing the card properly and making sure personal and professional expenses were separate. She said she didn’t immediately pay DECA back for charges the state education department reimbursed her for and they added up to a significant amount that overwhelmed her.

Among the purchases she made on the DECA card that the auditor’s report said did not appear to be DECA-related were those from American Eagle, Old Navy, Vera Bradley, Dillard’s and Men’s Wearhouse.

DECA also incurred more than $7,000 in finance charges because of Coffey’s cash advances and nonpayment of credit card bills.

The auditor examined a total of $143,125 in credit card charges, and said in the report that “given the sheer volume of those transactions it is questionable how Ms. Coffey managed to find time to perform any actual work.”

One of the transactions involved a $1,000 charge to Target for 50 gift cards at $20 apiece, but there is no documentation of who received the gift cards.

The auditor’s report notes three trips: to Moline, Illinois, New York City and Boston, where Coffey used the DECA card. The only reimbursement check auditors found was for the New York trip.

The auditor noted 360 food purchases totaling $20,541 over a two-year period appeared excessive, many of which were made when Coffey was not traveling.

After she was approached by state education officials with questions about her reimbursements, she gave several checks to the department totaling $11,028 in reimbursements.

The auditor recommended both DECA and the Nebraska Department of Education create procedures to ensure someone regularly reviews monthly bank and credit card statements for any discrepancies or unusual items.

The state Department of Education told auditors it promptly began disciplinary proceedings against Coffey when officials discovered the apparent wrongdoing and forwarded their findings to the state attorney general’s office for further investigation.

It also revised its policy, which now prohibits any state student adviser from reviewing and approving their own credit card charges. The revision process had begun before state education employees discovered Coffey's alleged improprieties, department officials said.

The report also noted that Coffey wasn’t required to submit supporting documentation, such as receipts, to the DECA board even after the balance due on the card became quite large. Coffey told DECA board members in January 2018 that the organization was about $25,000 in debt because of reduced membership but the board didn’t ask for any detailed documentation.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist.

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Local government reporter

Margaret Reist is a recovering education reporter now writing about local and county government and the people who live in the city where she was born and raised.

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