Audits escalate, lawmakers question pay for accused embezzler

By Katie Kerwin McCrimmon

Colorado lawmakers have questioned why a health exchange director who was indicted earlier this month on embezzlement charges in Montana is on paid leave from her $130,000 job with Connect for Health Colorado.

Christa Ann McClure is still listed on Connect for Health Colorado’s website as director for partner engagement even though she is accused of federal fraud and theft charges for allegedly stealing thousands of dollars from a Montana nonprofit that was building affordable housing for needy people.

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The Billings Gazette first reported on Feb. 6 that McClure, 51, had pleaded not guilty to the embezzlement charges in U.S. District Court in Montana. Connect for Health officials say McClure did not inform her Colorado bosses of the charges until Feb. 10 at which time they placed her on paid leave.

“I’m appalled that Ms. McClure is still being paid despite being indicted for fraud and theft,” Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, said in a written statement. “Paid leave is not a punishment. It’s a vacation and Ms. McClure has done nothing to earn a vacation.”

A Connect for Health consultant, Ben Davis of OnSight Public Affairs, said in a written statement that lawyers for the exchange advised a paid leave.

“The decision to put her on short-term — 15 day — paid administrative leave was made in consultation in with our attorneys, members of the board of directors and our federal grantors. Her status will be revisited as more information becomes available,” Davis said.

Rep. Dan Nordberg, R-Colorado Springs, also questioned whether Connect for Health is adequately projecting customer information.

Colorado state auditors are already combing through Connect for Health’s finances. Lawmakers initiated the audit after the executive director requested a pay hike and managers spent hundreds of thousands on consultants. That audit could expand if a bill that Nordberg and Sonnenberg have sponsored, HB 14-1257, wins support from lawmakers.

“I hope my colleagues in the legislature see the need to ensure the people entrusted with taxpayer funds and sensitive information are acting appropriately,” Nordberg said.

Health News Colorado was unable to reach McClure for comment.

As the Colorado audit continues, Montana has launched an audit of its own. In an ironic twist, McClure previously worked at the Montana Auditor’s Office. Managers there are bringing in a third party to conduct an audit of her work. (Click here to read more in the Billings Gazette.)

McClure worked at the Montana Auditor’s Office from 2010 until Connect for Health hired her in March of 2013. At the Montana auditor’s office, McClure managed three federal grants totaling $2.15 million to implement health reform. She earned $98,000 a year.

Prior to that, during her tenure as executive director at Housing Montana, McClure is accused of embezzling funds aimed at helping people in need.

McClure worked from 2008 to 2010 for the now defunct Housing Montana. As executive director, she was supposed to help qualified participants build their own homes. The homeowners had to invest 35 hours of sweat equity a week.

Among other charges, the federal indictment accuses McClure of pocketing fake fees that she charged to the needy families.

U.S. Attorney Carl Rostad said in a federal indictment obtained by The Billings Gazette that McClure paid herself “significant sums” for consulting services even though she was a full-time employee, and that she embezzled money to pay her family unauthorized salaries and bonuses, family bills and personal travel expenses.

McClure allegedly charged every homeowner $750 for a nonexistent “technical assistance warranty” and a $1,000 fee for leasing tools that were provided by the grant, the indictment said.

Federal authorities also alleged that McClure used grant funds to buy a personal laptop, wrote herself an unauthorized check for $21,000 and moved money from various accounts so she could better cover her tracks.

McClure pleaded not guilty on Feb. 6 in U.S. District Court in Billings. Her trial is set for June 23.

Officials at the Montana auditor’s office said they had no idea McClure was under suspicion.

The indictment “was a surprise to the department. We had no indication from anyone there was an investigation going on,” said Adam Schafer, deputy director for the Montana Auditor’s Office.

Davis, the Connect for Health communications consultant, said McClure did not have access to finances at Colorado’s exchange. But she had access to customer data. Davis said she was properly vetted, but he declined to say whether executives at Connect for Health thoroughly probed her references in Montana.

“References are considered personnel materials, which we do not release,” Davis said in a written response.

“Integrity and public trust are paramount to the mission of Connect for Health Colorado. We take extensive measures to protect consumer information and technology systems,” Davis wrote. “All employees must pass a criminal background check prior to being hired. Christa McClure had passed a background check when she was hired in March 2013 to support relationships with our state and federal partners. We learned about the federal case in Montana against her on Monday, February 10, and immediately took action. The employee was placed on administrative leave. She had no access to the financial operations at the organization.”

If convicted, McClure faces a maximum of 20 years in prison and a possible $250,000 fine.

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