Was Bobby Slate cheated by an employee he thought he could trust in everything, or was he a generous high roller who knew and didn’t care that Rhonda Byrd took lots of money for herself working for his companies?
Those are questions that jurors will be pondering over the next week and a half or so, as Byrd stands trial for three counts of embezzlement in Forsyth Superior Court.
Opening arguments began Tuesday in the case, with Slate himself leading off testimony. Slate testified that he hired Byrd in 1991 as a bookkeeper, and that he was “devastated” in 2008 when the situation leading to Byrd’s eventual indictment came to light.
“I trusted her with my life,” Slate said, during one emotional moment of his testimony. “I shouldn’t have. I adored the lady. She was like a mom to my children ... she had the sweetest personality. When all this came down, I was absolutely devastated. I could not believe how the woman could do what she did.”
The three indictments issued against Byrd relate to allegations that between 1999 and 2008, Byrd stole money from three of Slate’s companies: Slate Marketing Inc., Slate Retail Systems Inc. and Slate Packaging Inc.
Prosecutor Scott Harkey, the financial crimes prosecutor for the Piedmont region of the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys, told jurors in his opening statement that Byrd stole more than $1 million from the three Slate companies using three main methods:
- Altering transactions so that while Byrd was cutting a check for herself, it would look on the ledger like it was a legitimate payment.
- Writing checks to “cash,” and cashing them, and
- Taking over her own payroll payments, and paying herself extra salary that way.
Slate lives in Lewisville and described himself Tuesday as “somewhat retired,” although he still owns Slate Marketing and Slate Retail Systems. Slate Packaging is no longer in business.
Slate said his marketing company had big tobacco clients in the 1990s, along with other major businesses that he helped with marketing their products. Slate said he was also involved in the design and installation of the racks used to sell cigarettes in convenience stores and other locations.
Business was good, Slate said. His field was sales and marketing, and he spent time building the company, keeping track of accounts receivable, payable and cash on hand with stick-it notes that Byrd would send him.
During cross-examination by Bill Speaks, Byrd’s attorney, Slate said, “I thought I had people behind me who were doing their work ... I had people in place, I thought, dealing with bookkeeping ... I trusted her (Byrd) with my life.”
Speaks, in his opening statement, called Slate “Mr. Nice Guy,” the kind of man who would give someone a motorcycle or an expensive boat, who gave “wedding presents to employees off the books.”
In the 17 years that Byrd worked for him, Speaks said, Slate never did an audit. He suggested that Slate knew Byrd was taking money, and either let her do it or “didn’t care.”
In cross-examining Slate, Speaks suggested that Slate would have noticed thousands of dollars in unauthorized payments going out. Confronting Slate at one point, Speaks stated that Byrd didn’t embezzle from her boss because “you consented to each and every thing Rhonda did.”
“Absolutely not,” Slate responded. Slate denied telling Byrd she needed to come up with a loss to reduce a tax bill.
Speaks suggested a dark side to Slate’s personality when he asked Slate if he told Byrd he would “kill her and her family” if a separate real estate investment went down. Slate denied making the statement.
Amanda Baird, a freelance accountant and bookkeeper, said she was working for Slate in 2007 and later when Byrd left the company in April of 2008, leaving things in “a mess.”
Baird testified that in the early months of 2008, Byrd started being out sick and that vendors were not getting paid. She said it took years to straighten out the Slate accounts.
In a presentation using a projector, Baird and Harkey led jurors through the procedures that Byrd allegedly used to conceal payments she was actually making to herself.
In addition to the three counts for which she is on trial, Byrd is also facing two more counts of embezzlement relating to other Slate enterprises, along with one count of conspiracy and one count of obtaining property by false pretenses.
Indictments issued in 2016 alleged that Byrd and another man who has not yet gone to trial, Charles D. Washington, together stole $3 million from Slate and Slate enterprises.
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