Former transit system directors

Former Wilkes Transportation Authority directors Michael Norwood, left, and Robin Kipp, right, pleaded guilty to multiple felonies and agreed to pay a combined $132,158 in restitution to WTA in Wilkes Superior Court.

Two former Wilkes Transportation Authority (WTA) executive directors must pay a combined $132,158 in restitution to the agency as part of a plea agreement reached in an embezzlement case.

Resident Superior Court Judge Michael Duncan ordered that Robin Craven Kipp, 56, of North Wilkesboro and Michael Keith Norwood, 42, of Millers Creek pay $87,624 and $44,534 respectively to WTA when he sentenced them in Wilkes Superior Court on Jan. 19. These amounts are based on unauthorized pay and medical insurance supplements identified in a forensic audit of WTA records.

He ordered that Kipp and Norwood be jointly and severally liable for $27,925 in unauthorized bonuses — mostly paid to other WTA employees — and included this in the restitutions of $87,624 and $44,534. Each is supposed to pay half of $27,925, but one must be responsible for whatever portion isn’t paid.

Duncan also sentenced Kipp to 20-33 months in prison and Norwood to 13-25 months in prison, but suspended prison time and ordered that they be on supervised probation for 60 months each. Kipp faced a minimum of 80 months and Norwood a minimum of 52 months in prison based on their charges.

Kipp was charged with and pleaded guilty to seven counts of embezzlement by a public official and three counts of obtaining property by false pretense. These charges are based on offenses between July 1, 2014, and June 30, 2018. Kipp was WTA finance manager in the first half of this period and executive director the second half. Warrants charging her with obtaining property by false pretense said she used a WTA credit card to buy essential oil products and personal insurance, including for jewelry and an auto.

Norwood was charged with and pleaded guilty to six counts of embezzlement by a public official for offenses between July 1, 2013, and June 30, 2017. He became WTA executive director in early February 2013, after working eight years as finance officer for AppalCART, the public transit in Watauga County.

Kipp and Norwood were charged with and pleaded guilty to felony conspiracy for conspiring with each other to embezzle funds from WTA between July 1, 2014, and May 16, 2017.

Duncan cited acceptance of responsibility by Kipp and Norwood as a mitigating factor in their sentencing. He cited the fact that Kipp was a public official as an aggravating factor and ordered that she not be on WTA property without written permission.

He said the large amount of restitution resulted in longer probation periods, but stated full payment of restitution and compliance with other sentencing terms would result in unsupervised rather than supervised probation after 36 months. Kipp was ordered to pay $15,000 of her restitution and Norwood to pay $7,400 of his on the same day they were sentenced.

Norwood resigned as executive director at a WTA board meeting in mid-May 2017, after the board approved a motion to fire him if he didn’t resign. Minutes said the board agreed to waive repayment of a personal loan from WTA to Norwood before he resigned in exchange for him agreeing to not speak about WTA.

The WTA board appointed Kipp interim executive director at that same meeting and voted to promote her to executive director on Sept. 19, 2017. At a WTA board meeting in late July 2018, Kipp resigned after board members said they had no faith in her plans for improving the public transit’s finances.

In early October 2018, the Wilkes County commissioners named themselves the WTA board in place of nine members they appointed in early 2018 by approving amendments to a 2004 county ordinance converting WTA from a private, nonprofit to a public agency. Some of the nine named to the board in early 2018 were already serving in that capacity, but hadn’t been appointed in accordance with WTA policy.

Prior to the commissioners becoming the WTA board, the board included representatives of human service agencies using WTA services, Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro town managers and county government representatives.

Acting as the WTA board, the commissioners named Gary Page, former Wilkes County manager, interim WTA director in October 2018. In December 2018, they approved a contract with certified public accountant R. Lawrence Young of Raleigh, a former State Bureau of Investigation agent, authorizing a forensic audit that cost about $20,000. Forensic audits are often done to provide evidence for prosecuting financial malfeasance.

The WTA board (commissioners) approved promoting Michael Johnson from trip scheduling to WTA director, effective March 25, 2019. In his two-plus years at WTA, Johnson had been morning trip dispatcher, a driver and held other positions.

After results of the forensic audit were shared with District Attorney Tom Horner’s office, SBI Agent L.D. Hagaman III began investigating and filed the warrants charging Kipp and Norwood in late 2019.

WTA’s mounting requests for financial help from county government, starting in 2017, made the commissioners increasingly aware that something was awry. Prior to 2017, the county hadn’t appropriated funds to WTA since $40,500 in fiscal 2009-10 and $50,000 the prior year. At one point, WTA officials had to choose between paying the fuel bill for WTA vehicles or payroll taxes due to a lack of revenue.

A Whiteville CPA firm hired by the county to review WTA finances found that WTA directors made cash advances to themselves and that a WTA credit card was used improperly, including for a home insurance payment. The accountant reported finding that two WTA directors were paid more than their approved salaries and that one never worked more than 25 hours a week.

Florida-based Transpro Consulting LLC, hired by the N.C. Department of Transportation to review WTA finances in 2017, cited personal loans of WTA funds to Norwood and Kipp and Christmas bonuses to employees. The Whiteville CPA said such loans weren’t allowed.

Assistant District Attorney Leigh Bricker, who prosecuted the case in which Kipp and Norwood were charged, said he consulted with County Attorney Tony Triplett and County Manager John Yates on the plea agreement with Kipp and Norwood. Bricker said Triplett and Yates agreed with the agreement under which the two former WTA executive directors were sentenced on Jan. 19.

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