Former CASA director arrested on embezzlement complaints

Traci Owens

By Traci Chapman

A former Canadian County CASA director has been arrested on 72 complaints of embezzlement and fraud, involving more than $70,000 allegedly taken from the child assistance agency.

Traci Owens, 45, of Yukon on Monday surrendered to Canadian County sheriff’s investigators on a case investigated for almost six months, Undersheriff Chris West said. Owens was appointed in 2010 as Canadian County’s executive director for CASA – Court Appointed Special Advocates.

“(Owens) came under suspicion last fall when officials realized discrepancies in financial documents existed,” West said. “Although the discrepancies weren’t noted until November 2013, it’s believed Owens may have begun embezzling funds as early as September 2011, about a year after she became executive director.”

CASA is a nonprofit organization comprised of volunteers who are appointed by judges to advocate for abused and neglected children.

“Volunteer advocates — empowered directly by the courts — offer judges the critical information they need to ensure that each child’s rights and needs are being attended to while in foster care,” is stated as CASA’s mission on its national website.

“For many abused children, their CASA volunteer will be the one constant adult presence in their lives,” West said. “A large portion of the funding that supports CASA is generated by local donations and benevolent organizations such as the United Way.”

Owens worked for the organization until June 2013, when she emailed the county CASA board and tendered her resignation, after questions were raised about attendance issues, West said. The CASA employee who took over the directorship “quickly noted discrepancies in finances after reviewing financial documents,” the undersheriff said.

During the more than five-month investigation, the sheriff’s department obtained a search warrant for Owens’ Yukon home, as well as a warrant for her arrest, West said. Investigators collected documents and computer equipment at the home, he said.

“Owens systematically abused her position by issuing herself extra payroll, bonus checks and other unauthorized expenditures, and all but bankrupted CASA,” Sheriff Randall Edwards said.

Owens was booked into Canadian County Jail and held on $50,000 bail. She posted that bond and was released Monday evening, West said. Charges were expected to be filed this week, he said. If convicted, Owens faces up to 10 years in prison.

Owens is not the first CASA director to be accused of embezzlement from the organization. In 2009, Oklahoma CASA Executive Director Anna Naukam, 51 at the time of her indictment, and her 64-year-old husband, Eugene Naukam III, were convicted of embezzling about $500,000 from the organization. Eugene Naukam worked as CASA special projects coordinator.

Both Anna and Eugene Naukam eventually plead guilty to the charges. Eugene Naukam was sentenced to five years in prison and 15 years’ probation after admitting to one count of conspiracy to commit a felony and 41 counts of embezzlement. His wife also admitted to the conspiracy charge, as well as 148 counts of embezzlement with a  sentence of 15 years in prison and 20 years’ probation. Together, the couple was ordered to pay more than $697,024 in restitution.

In reports published at the time of Naukam’s arrest, it was Owens who commented on behalf of CASA about the charges.

“We’ll be saddened and disappointed if the allegations turn out to be true,” she said.

“What makes this case so heinous is that the monies that were embezzled were to support under-privileged children and she spent it on herself, further victimizing these children,” Edwards said.