The city of Fresno, California, lost about $400,000 to an internet scammer in 2020 and then covered it up, even going to the extent of denying a public record request related to the incident, according to reports.
The news comes from The Fresno Bee, which details the sordid saga of an untrustworthy government at its worst.
According to the paper, city officials got scammed by a fake invoice that appeared to come from a city contractor with a request for payment for services that were never performed.
The invoice looked so official, The Bee said, that a city clerk authorized the payment before anyone realized that the invoice was a scam.
“It is my understanding that it’s the single largest loss for the city, in the case of a fraud,” Councilmember Miguel Arias told The Bee.
“In an interview Wednesday, current Mayor Jerry Dyer said two payments were made. Arias said city officials believe the money was sent to an account in Africa,” The Bee initially reported.
The city called in the FBI, but only about $2,000 was recovered. The FBI also said they felt the scammer was actually an American, not a scammer in Africa.
Before all this became public, though, The Bee tried to get the information with a public record request that the city rejected. The Bee filed its request on Dec. 13 of last year, asking for communication regarding wire fraud.
At first, the city said it needed an extension to fulfill the request, but later sent the paper a note saying, “The City of Fresno has reviewed its files and did not locate records responsive to your request.”
Can you trust your own city government?
According to The Fresno Bee report, “[City Attorney Doug] Sloan explained that the city attorney’s office searched for the words ‘wire fraud.’ Since those words didn’t appear in the emails … the city attorney’s office told The Bee there were no responsive records.”
However, the paper later found plenty of records detailing the theft.
Councilmember Arias was shocked at the city’s refusal to accede to the record request.
“I can’t speak to why the administrative staff wouldn’t release something that’s clearly public interest and what I think is a public document, which is disturbing,” Arias told the paper.
Mayor Dyer tried to position himself as a leader for transparency, saying that he brought the issue to a closed session of the city council.
“I felt the need as the incoming mayor to get off on the right foot and make sure that there was some transparency going on,” he told The Bee in an interview.
But Arias said that the council felt “blindsided” by the loss.
“When [Mayor Dyer] informed us of it, he was blindsided and surprised that council had not been informed of such a significant incident. So, credit to the mayor for disclosing it to the city as he came into office, and shame on the previous administrative staff that kept it from the council and the public,” Arias said.
Online fraud is a growing concern, of course, and cities and corporations both have lost billions due to scammers locking down computers, hacking emails and ripping people off.
In 2020, for instance, the Wisconsin GOP sadly reported that hackers stole $2.3 million from the state’s GOP. That same year, “Shark Tank” star Barbara Corcoran was also a victim and confirmed that she lost nearly $400,000 to an online phishing scam. Fresno is not alone, to be sure.
While Fresno was beset with jokes about “Nigerian princes” stealing hundreds of thousands from the taxpayers, worse is the lack of transparency the city afforded to its citizens.
The Fresno Bee is rightfully shocked that it has taken more than two years for this monumental debacle to be made public. One wonders if the public would ever have found out if it weren’t for the paper’s efforts.
It makes one wonder just what else the city is hiding from the public.