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Stung by scandal.

The felony theft arrests of Pulaski County Tax Collector Ed Maples and his chief deputy have left some taxpayers wondering if an honest man in county government is a contradiction in terms.

Employees at the collector's office also were shocked at the Sept. 3 arrests of the mild-mannered, clean-cut Maples, 35, and his chief deputy, Mitchell McCollum, 34.

Both are charged with skimming $18,320 in interest from county coffers. McCollum also is charged with the theft of a $627 cash deposit.

The arrests threw taxpayers into a tailspin. They began calling the collector's office wondering to whom their checks should be made payable.

The collector's office is advising taxpayers to make checks out to the Pulaski County Collector -- not Maples.

Maples and McCollum joined an infamous list of alleged county crooks, becoming the third and fourth public servants to be charged with or convicted of stealing public funds in the last 16 months.

O.G. Kuykendall, former chairman of the county's Public Facilities Board, is awaiting trial on a felony theft charge of allegedly embezzling about $91,000 in board funds.

Harry Tapp, former elections coordinator for the county Election Commission, served nearly five months of a five-year prison sentence earlier this year after pleading guilty to embezzling $40,615 from the commission.

If it's any consolation to disillusioned citizens, Prosecuting Attorney Mark Stodola vows to continue his hard-line approach toward graft in government.

"We intend to be ever vigilant in prosecuting people who are not only thieves but who are clearly violating the public trust," he says.

The Alleged Scam

It all began to unravel when McCollum's wife found a cash-filled bank bag in her home.

Based on public statements by Stodola and arrest affidavits for Maples and McCollum, the following chain of events allegedly led to the arrest of the two county officials:

In December, McCollum retrieved a cash deposit of $627.24 from the vault of the collector's main office at 201 S. Broadway. The deposit was ostensibly to be deposited in a county account at Worthen National Bank of Arkansas.

When the next bank statement arrived, it was discovered that the deposit never reached the bank.

Almost seven months later, McCollum's wife told Maples and Kay Wyse, who succeeded McCollum as chief deputy, that she had come across a bank bag at the couple's home. The bag contained $627.24 and a deposit slip from the collector's office.

She asked her husband about the deposit. He told her he had forgotten to deposit the money.

Several months later, she came across the bank bag again.

This time it contained only 24 cents.

The unvalidated deposit slip was later found in one of her husband's coat pockets.

McCollum allegedly told Maples he had taken the money and would pay it back. But, apparently soon after that conversation, McCollum resigned upon being told of the prosecutor's investigation into the missing deposit.

In May, Maples and McCollum allegedly negotiated a check for $18,320 from an undisclosed account at Twin City Bank. The check represented interest on a $20-million real estate tax payment that was received by the collector's office in April and deposited.

The tax payments later were allocated to the proper accounts and the interest check was cashed in at First Commercial Bank by McCollum for a $13,232 cashier's check and $5,088 in cash, some of which the men allegedly admitted to splitting and taking for personal use.

About $4,000-$7,500 of the interest check is unaccounted for, Stodola says.

Widening The Net

The embezzlement investigation into the collector's office has branched off into two directions, Stodola says.

The only certainty?

More money is missing.

"There's some belief that it's in excess of $25,000, but that is yet to be confirmed," the prosecutor says of the deficiency uncovered in a 1991 office audit that is near completion.

However, Stodola is quick to note he does not know if Maples and McCollum are responsible for the missing funds.

Stodola says the investigation also involves determining who else -- if anyone -- was involved in converting interest money for personal use. Also, a question remains as to whether Maples and McCollum may have skimmed interest in any other instances.

"There may be other people involved, but that's only a possibility at this point," Stodola says. "I really don't want to strike terror in every individual's heart over there. I know there are some very honest people there."

Since the arrests, McCollum has agreed to further questioning by the prosecutor's office. Stodola will not say whether Maples is cooperating.

Who Are These People?

Part of the beauty of democracy is that virtually anyone can run for elected office.

That's also one of the drawbacks.

Take the case of the county collector. Apparently, the only qualifications are that candidates be at least 21 years old and live in the county they wish to serve.

Financial experience is not required. Never mind that in 1992 the collector's office is charged with bringing in more than $150 million of taxpayer money.

Public records and interviews with some of Maples' former co-workers and campaign contributors reveal some interesting details about the one-time school teacher who decisively ousted Ken Taylor in the 1990 election.

Maples rode into office on a wave of strong public sentiment against Taylor, who was criticized for not spending much time at work. A hounded Taylor resigned five months shy of his fourth term.

Maples pledged to work for his $40,910 salary but he, too, spent little time in the office. Sources say he and McCollum frequently worked on lowering their golf handicap on county time.

McCollum, appointed by Maples, earned a $27,100 salary.

He and Maples had known each other from their previous jobs in the Office of Academic Advising at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

For more than a year, Maples earned $18,200 as an academic counselor at UALR. A university spokesman says Maples resigned in February 1990 to run for office.

McCollum worked at UALR almost two years as a program adviser. He was making $14,422 a year when he resigned in March to pursue "other occupational opportunities."

Before his job at UALR, Maples was employed during the 1983-84 school year as a history teacher and basketball coach at Mount St. Mary Academy in Little Rock.

Since St. Mary's is private, neither Maples' salary nor the reason for his leaving could be determined.

For about five months from late 1987 to early '88, Maples worked as a group life therapist at the Elizabeth Mitchell Children's Center in Little Rock. On an application there, he listed a 1982 liberal arts degree from UALR and noted that he was working on a master's degree in education.

Maples' campaign for office was based more on a platform of earnestness than experience. His background is not widely known, even by those who supported his election bid.

One thing Maples apparently did not publicize while seeking office was a bankruptcy petition he and his wife filed in January 1983. According to U.S. Bankruptcy Court records in Little Rock, the couple filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, listing assets of $1,425 and debts of $15,197 to 14 creditors.

The Mapleses emerged from bankruptcy six months later.

The couple appears to have rebounded financially in the last few years.

Maples and his wife, a nurse, live in the Hillcrest area. For a while, they owned a 1989 BMW in addition to a Jeep Cherokee. However, the BMW was sold last year and removed from Maples' 1991 property assessment before the payment deadline.

Maples owned a part interest in an airplane for a short period. A county source says the plane was sold before the deadline for assessing property tax this year.

Also on his $40,910 annual collector's salary, Maples managed a trip to Ireland and a Colorado ski vacation.

Still-loyal supporters say Maples is a kind, honest man, a devoted father and husband. They say he is someone who may have been led astray by unscrupulous others.

Maples was unavailable for comment for this story.

Meet John Q. Public

Enter Mike Montgomery, a former self-employed accountant with nearly 30 years experience.

His new job description: interim tax collector.

Montgomery faces the unenviable task of stepping into the scandal-shaken collector's office and carrying on a task that will be especially trying in the next three weeks as the majority of the county's personal property tax payments pour in.

Assisting Montgomery for the remainder of Maples' unfinished term is Buell James, who stepped in as interim tax collector when Taylor resigned the office.

"I'm not a politician," Montgomery says. "I'm a businessman. I came in from John Q. Public into a situation that's bad because of what happened to Mr. Maples.

"But county government is not that way. You've got some hard-working, honest people who are getting a black eye because of three or four people."

Montgomery will not discuss the financial condition of the office because of the continuing investigation. But he and James note that collection of delinquent real estate taxes is down compared to last year.

Delinquent notices have not been mailed out, costing the county interest on payments that normally would have been received.

According to James, delinquent real estate taxes totaling $552,383 were collected in March 1991. That compares with $315,517 this March.

County Judge Buddy Villines would like to see the collector's office eliminated. Not because of what's happened, but because he believes there is a duplication of services in the assessor and collector offices.

Villines would prefer the billing and collection duties split between the offices of the assessor and treasurer.

"Sometimes under the guise of checks and balances, we just create another place for things to go wrong," Villines says of the collector's office.

On the November ballot, voters will have the proposition Villines endorses put before them. If it passes, the change would be effective January 1995.

"We talk a lot about saving money in government," Villines says. "This is a way to save money and operate more effectively and efficiently."

Villines credits Maples with some improvements in the collector's office, particularly for finding ways the county could earn more interest on its money.

"While we've had this real tragedy, I think there have been some positive improvements," Villines says. "But it still doesn't change the fact that you've got an office that basically isn't needed."
COPYRIGHT 1992 Journal Publishing, Inc.
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Title Annotation:Pulaski County Collector
Author:Martin, Dixie
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Sep 21, 1992
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