A longtime aide to District Attorney Steve Wolfson stole nearly $42,000 from his campaign four years ago to cover a gambling habit, but was allowed to pay back the money and avoid being charged, a Las Vegas Review-Journal investigation has found.
Audrie Locke, 45, the district attorney’s community liaison and spokeswoman, admitted in an interview that she took the campaign’s checkbook from Wolfson’s office without his knowledge and wrote a series of checks to herself in 2014. She blamed the theft on money troubles tied to her video poker addiction and fragile emotional state at the time over the deaths of her mother, three close friends and two dogs.
“I have a gambling problem … So there’s a lot of money issues that come with that, and that’s what happened,” she said. “The gambling spiraled. And if you talk to anybody who’s ever had a gambling problem, the first challenge that they have is recovering financially.”
The checks were written between February and August 2014 during Wolfson’s election run and about half of the money was stolen between July and August, a knowledgeable source said.
Wolfson’s failure to pursue potential felony criminal charges against Locke has raised concerns about whether she received favorable treatment because of her close personal relationship with the district attorney. Wolfson is running unopposed for reelection this year, and the candidate filing period ends Friday.
Locke said she had gambled away her paychecks and needed the cash to pay her bills, but dipped further into the campaign account during those two months hoping to win enough money playing video poker to pay back the $42,000.
At the time, Locke, who was using her maiden name Audrie Dodge , was on Wolfson’s campaign payroll performing a variety of duties, including for helping to maintain the campaign’s books and filing contribution and expense reports with the state. She also was earning about $80,000 a year in her high-profile job at the district attorney’s office.
Wolfson said in an interview that Locke has been a “trusted employee” for 14 years dating to his days as a Las Vegas councilman, and he still trusts her.
“She’s been the best employee I’ve ever had in 37 years, times 10,” he said. “If I could have a hundred Audries, I would love to have a hundred Audries.”
Wolfson defended his decision not to report the campaign theft to Las Vegas police, saying he was using his “discretion” as the victim to decline to pursue criminal charges.
“I believe that this is an aberration,” he said. “I believe she had an illness, and I believe that it’s the illness that caused her to do this … I decided to give her a second chance to prove to me that she would get treatment for her addiction.”
Locke repaid the $42,000 with the help of her family within two weeks after Wolfson discovered the theft in early August 2014, Locke and Wolfson said.
She also resigned from the office amid the hushed-up scandal on Aug. 25, 2014, and entered an intensive, six-week gambling addiction program before being hired back two months later.
Wolfson kept the reason for Locke’s sudden departure quiet, telling other staff that her resignation was for health reasons, current and former employees of the district attorney’s office said.
His decision not to seek criminal charges has attracted criticism.
“I don’t know if he affords that same opportunity to other individuals that he prosecutes,” said Clark County Commission Chairman Steve Sisolak, who was present when the commission appointed Wolfson to the district attorney’s job in 2012.
Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College in Southern California, said the decision creates a perception problem for the district attorney.
“It looks bad,” he said. “I can’t speak to the legalities, but the real question is would someone else under similar circumstances have gotten the same treatment?”
Kathleen Bliss, a former longtime federal prosecutor in Las Vegas, agreed.
“He clearly showed mercy for a friend,” Bliss said. “I hope that he exercises his discretion to similarly show mercy for those who may have troubling situations like this woman, but who may not have the same kind of access to him as she obviously does.”
Added Robert Fellner, executive director of transparency for the conservative Nevada Policy Research Institute: “The obvious conflict of interest in him determining not to prosecute her but to continue to employ her in the district attorney’s office is incomprehensible. It’s just mind-blowing to me.”
Wolfson said his office has occasionally abided by the wishes of victims of crimes and not prosecuted cases. He also said his decisions involving Locke were made after discussions with several people, including Greg Smith, the district attorney’s human resources director.
Smith said all office employees with addictions are treated in the same manner.
“She’s not the first and she wouldn’t be the last,” he said. “It’s just easier for our office to be consistent in our practices.”
Wolfson said he also spoke to his chief civil lawyer Mary-Anne Miller and then-Nevada Secretary of State Ross Miller.
“I don’t think he cut her inappropriate slack,” Mary-Anne Miller said. “He was genuinely seeking direction from the people he reached out to.”
Wolfson also consulted with Dave Thomas, one of his campaign managers.
“I think he was very conscientious in analyzing the situation and trying to do the right thing,” Thomas said. “The root of (her conduct) is a mental illness, not a desire to do criminal activity … I give her money all the time, and I’m not concerned about it.”
Still handling money
Locke continued to be paid by Wolfson’s campaign — she got more than $1,000 — during her two-month absence, records show. When she returned to her job in the office on Oct. 20, she stepped up her duties as the district attorney’s spokeswoman and took on fundraising efforts for office social events and benefits for ailing employees.
Locke, who said that she has not gambled since the thefts were discovered, confirmed in an interview with the Review-Journal that she now handles money within the district attorney’s office.
Wolfson confronted Locke and informed her that he intended to report the embezzlement to his human resources director in an Aug. 5, 2014 personal email exchange obtained by the Review-Journal.
“I want to know all of my options as district attorney,” Wolfson wrote. “Therefore, tomorrow I plan to sit down with him to inform him of your acts of theft, forgery and whatever else is appropriate. As you know, you handled monies, whether in the form of cash, checks, etc. and he needs to be made aware of what has happened.”
Locke admitted the theft in an emotional email response that evening to Wolfson.
“I can’t emphasize enough the shame and regret I feel,” she wrote. “More than once I planned to come in and talk to you about the situation but never got the nerve. It is, and was always, my intention to return the money. I know that is a hollow statement at this point.
“The worst part is betraying your trust. I know I’ll never get that back, and that is unimaginable to me.”
Wolfson was appointed district attorney in 2012 and first elected in 2014 to an office the county website says has a $65 million budget and more than 700 employees.
So far, he has raised more than $615,000 mostly from casino, business and legal interests, his latest campaign contribution report shows.
Locke’s financial problems had threatened to erupt over the years. The home she owned with her husband, John M. Locke, was on the brink of being sold at a trustee auction several times. In October 2009, the IRS filed a $78,298 lien on the property for unpaid taxes, county records show. The IRS lifted the lien in March 2013 after the couple sold the modest two-story home, according to the records.
Locke said she and her husband did not make any money on the sale.
That same month, a friend of Locke’s filed a complaint in Justice Court to recover a $5,000 loan he made to her in May 2009. David Koeb said in the complaint that Locke told him she needed the money to stop the foreclosure of her ailing mother’s house.
Las Vegas Justice of the Peace Karen Bennett-Haron signed a default judgment against Locke in April 2013, ordering her to pay Koeb $6,900, which included interest and court costs. Her wages at the district attorney’s office were garnished, and by the end of October 2013 she had paid back $5,211. Koeb did not return calls for comment, and Locke would not discuss the matter other than to say she paid back all that she owed.
In October 2010, payday loan giant Rapid Cash threatened to repossess Locke’s 2005 Dodge Magnum, which she had posted as collateral for more than $9,000 in loans she received from the company. Rapid Cash later filed court complaints to recover money but never pursued the cases.
When Locke returned to the district attorney’s office in October 2014, she started using her married name for the first time since her 1999 marriage, records and interviews show.
Eventually, Locke started handling money within the district attorney’s office as a fundraiser and social coordinator, according to emails obtained by the Review-Journal.
She was part of an office social committee, earning a reputation as the “cruise director” and “party planner.” She promoted bake sales, golf tournaments, weight-loss competitions and hot dog eating contests to raise money for office social events and ailing employees who were unable to work.
In one contest, staffers were asked to make donations for the right to guess the number of Starburst jellybeans in a large jar filled with the colorful candy. Whoever came the closest was to get half the donations with the rest going to the social committee for office events like the annual holiday party.
By the end of October, emails show, Locke boasted that the office had raised more than $10,000 for the victims of the Mandalay Bay shooting, primarily by raffling employee-donated gift baskets and selling VegasStrong T-shirts and hoodies.
She raised additional money for other office projects through the sale of tumblers, polo shirts, hats and sports bottles bearing the district attorney’s office logo, emails show. Sometimes, she would direct the staff to buy raffle tickets from her or to order merchandise through her.
Amid the office fundraising, Locke started her own graphics company in April 2015, allowing her to obtain more money from Wolfson’s campaign. She filed papers with the Nevada secretary of state’s office incorporating the company called Gemini Graphics, which printed logos on T-shirts. She listed herself as the resident agent and lone officer.
The secretary of state revoked the company’s license on April 30, 2016 for failing to provide an updated list of officers, but records show the company continued to receive money from Wolfson’s campaign.
Locke has personally received more than $25,500 under both of her last names for working on Wolfson’s campaigns dating to 2011 when he was a city councilman, according to figures compiled by the secretary of state’s office. Gemini Graphics has earned nearly $5,000 since 2015.
Most recently, Locke formed a new graphics company in August called Karmic Thread. She said in an interview that she has used the company to produce T-shirts and hoodies that were sold to office staff for various charities, including funds to help victims of the Oct. 1 shooting.
She said the district attorney’s office has reimbursed her expenses. She has made no profit for her work, she said.