A federal grand jury on Tuesday indicted a former top-ranking Georgia Bureau of Investigation official for allegedly charging more than $60,000 to state-issued purchasing cards.
Putnam pleaded guilty in December to state charges similar to the federal crimes she is now accused of committing. The state’s case was closed when federal investigators began their own investigation into her purchases.
The alleged scheme, laid out in four counts of mail fraud and three counts of theft from a federal program, mirror earlier charges brought against former GBI Inspector Sandra Putnam, who now goes by her married name of Sandra Stevens. She pleaded guilty last December in DeKalb County Superior Court to racketeering and violating the oath of a public official.
Though she could have been sentenced to as much as 20 years in prison last year, DeKalb Superior Court Judge Clarence Seeliger ordered her to serve 10 years probation. That sentence was terminated weeks later once she had completed the mandated 200 hours of community service and repaid the $60,268 she charged on a state credit card from May 2013 until August 2016.
Seeliger’s sentence stunned the GBI, which investigated the case; the state Attorney General’s Office, which filed state charges last year; and even her own attorney, who had asked for a tougher sentence. The prosecutor had asked that she be sentenced to eight years in prison followed by 12 years on probation. Her attorney, Mario Ninfo, asked for a six-year probation sentence that included 30 days in the DeKalb County jail and two years on home confinement.
But Seeliger said Steven’s two-plus decades of “honorable service” in law enforcement offset the harm she had done, adding “I’m not exactly sure why you got caught up in this scheme. I do wish you luck.”
Afterward, the U.S. Attorney’s Office asked for Stevens’s file, according to GBI Director Vernon Keenan and a spokeswoman for Attorney General Chris Carr.
“Based on her position and years of service, the GBI and the law enforcement community placed great trust in Stevens,” said U.S. Attorney Byung J. “BJay” Pak. “Unfortunately, Stevens broke that trust for her own personal gain.”
Keenan said he “absolutely” supported handing over the agency’s investigation to federal prosecutors.
“This indictment sends a clear message that public corruption will not be tolerated no matter who commits the act. Sworn officers must obey the law while they enforce the law,” Keenan said.
Steven’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment.
Stevens was a star in the GBI. She had been a forensic auditor, an assistant supervisor over the high-technology investigations, had overseen a child exploitation unit, until she was promoted to inspector over several units at the GBI. But she was fired from her $101,000-a-year job in August 2016 when the personal charges were discovered as a result of a routine audit of the purchasing cards.
Items she paid for with the cards included more than 325 items for herself, her friends, her family and her co-workers.
The federal indictment said Stevens used her card and those issued to at least six other GBI employees to pay for more “unauthorized purchases of goods and services for her personal benefit or the personal benefit of others.” Some examples included:
• A seven-piece dining set for $563
• corn hole game set for $230
• two chaise lounge chairs to go beside her pool for $400
• 65-inch ultra HD smart television for $1598
• motion-sensor trash can for $65
To cover up the improper charges, she changed the description of items purchased and where some were shipped when she filed the required paperwork, according to the indictment.
For example, a $930 leather sectional sofa was reported as anti-virus software. Paperwork showed the chaise lounge chairs as an iPad.
According to records The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained earlier this year, after the state’s case was closed, Stevens submitted paperwork for a $47.95 cat tower that she documented as waterproof bags, $136.99 for a UGA golf bag for her then-boyfriend that she reported as shoes worn by GBI agents, $838.81 on a Microsoft Surface Pro with a keyboard and other accessories for her now-step-daughter and outdoor cushions she she claimed was a digital camera.
Records showed Stevens would use cards assigned to others and when those cards were maxed out, she would instruct her co-workers to have the credit limits increased so she could keep buying.
Her downfall began with a simple key word search. The Georgia Department of Administrative Services — making a routine fraud check of GBI purchasing card charges — looked for the word “sandals.” Up popped Steven’s — then Putnam’s — account. The Department of Administrative Services contacted the state inspector general who in turn called Keenan in August 2016.
That was when the GBI began a criminal investigation as well as an administrative internal review.
Officials found that some low-level GBI employees had suspicions for years about Steven’s lavish spending, but a “culture of internal trust” existed and bureau failed to take action despite multiple red flags.
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