A former longtime Harris Teeter worker was sentenced to a year and a day in federal prison this week after admitting she stole nearly $78,000 from the grocer’s employee-assistance foundation.
Leah Belk of Indian Trail in Union County, North Carolina, admitted she spent the money on her mortgage and utility bills, according to court documents she filed as part of her guilty plea in U.S. District Court in Charlotte. Belk pleaded guilty to wire fraud.
Belk worked for Harris Teeter from 1992 until she was fired in March 2017, according to a bill of information that federal prosecutors filed against her in September 2017. A bill of information is similar to an indictment, except no grand jury is involved.
She most recently was administrative assistant to the senior vice president of human resources and a board member of the non-profit Hugh G. Ashcraft Foundation, which helps Harris Teeter workers facing financial hardship, according to federal documents.
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The Matthews-based grocer employs about 30,000 workers in seven states and the District of Columbia.
From 2010 until March, according to the bill of information, Belk falsified documents and diverted payments to herself 45 times while performing foundation administrative tasks. Harris Teeter workers fund the foundation through donations deducted from their paychecks.
The foundation typically pays a financially distressed employee’s expenses with checks payable to the worker’s mortgage or utility companies. The foundation also buys gift cards for workers in need.
Belk modified employees’ approved financial hardship applications after payments were made to the workers, according to the bill of information. The changes caused additional checks to be issued to pay her expenses as well, according to the federal document.
Prosecutors said Belk also modified rejected applications to reflect that they had been approved, and then directed the issuance of checks to cover her expenses. She also used gift cards intended for employees in need to make purchases for herself, according to the bill of information.
Belk also diverted applications from the board and falsified and reused board approval forms to approve payments and the issuance of checks to cover her personal expenses, court records show.
In her court filing as part of her guilty plea, Belk said she stole the money during a time of "financial hardship and family strife."
When she was charged in the case last year, Belk’s lawyer, Ryan Ames of Charlotte, told the Observer that Belk had intended to plead guilty.
Ames said no money involved in the case was taken from financially distressed employees; all who qualified for assistance received the amount the board granted them, he said. The money Belk got was in addition to what the employees received, he said.
“This was someone I believe is a good person, who worked her whole life and had never gotten in trouble before,” Ames said last year. “She is taking responsibility for it and has agreed to plead guilty.”
In a statement at the time the charge was filed, Harris Teeter said: “Through new technology recently installed, we were extremely disappointed to discover an associate was embezzling funds from HAF. The associate was terminated, and our leadership team proactively communicated with our valued associates regarding this unfortunate situation.
“The company has not only established controls that should prevent this type of incident from occurring in the future, but it is also taking steps to ensure that HAF is fully reimbursed for the extent of the loss.”