CRESTVIEW — Former Crestview Area Chamber of Commerce president Valerie Lott was arrested Thursday after turning herself into the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office.
Lott was arrested on a felony count of larceny for allegedly stealing over $77,000 from the chamber from November 2012 to September 2017, according to an arrest report from the Sheriff’s Office.
The arrest report details the many alleged fraudulent transactions Lott made using the chamber’s Regions credit cards and checks, and also withdrawing cash from the chamber’s bank accounts. The report also states that Lott repaid the Regions bank card by using money from the chamber’s bank account in hopes of hiding the thefts.
According to the report, Lott forged the signatures of chamber members on 17 checks totaling almost $30,000.
Among the personal purchases made by Lott was a vacation to Disney World for her family that totaled over $4,000, veterinarian services for her dog and 48 Amazon purchases, according to the arrest report. She also allegedly used the funds to pay household bills, from lawn care to electricity.
Gillis Powell Jr. of Powell, Powell, and Powell has been representing Lott since September 2017 when she was removed from her position as chamber president.
Powell said Lott has a “severe mental disorder” that was undiagnosed until she was hospitalized for 11 days in 2017.
“The psychiatrist that she is seeing gave a statement that she does not know right from wrong," Powell said. "This was open and obvious that she didn’t know what she was doing and the board should have brought it to her attention … she begged them to look at the books.."
Powell also said Lott is now on medication and has a job that will allow her to start “paying back the funds.”
The timing of Lott’s departure in 2017 closely coincided with a fire at the chamber headquarters that the State Fire Marshal's Office confirmed was intentionally set. On Aug. 25, 2017, Lott was found placing documents in the kitchen area at the chamber office. Two days later on a Sunday, a fire broke out in the chamber’s building.
"The fire appeared to originate on the records Lott previously placed in the kitchen area prior to the records being reviewed by the Chamber's board," the Lott arrest report said.
When officers arrived to investigate the fire alarm activation, an unnamed chamber employee was seen leaving the building, according to a police report. The female employee was interviewed after an officer entered the chamber office through an unlocked but possibly damaged back door and discovered documents burning in the kitchen. The fire did an estimated $200 damage.
The State Fire Marshall's Office declared the fire to be an arson. The fire remains under investigation.
The Crestview Police Department, the first agency on the scene of the alarm activation that led to the discovery of the fire, also noted a door had been damaged and conducted a burglary investigation of its own. No charges have yet been filed in that case.
It is unclear whether any additional charges will be made. The chamber declined to comment when contacted Thursday afternoon.
Wayne Harris, who served as Crestview chamber president before Lott and is a former county commissioner, said he was dismayed by the events.
"I'm saddened by it," he said. "All the hard work so many people have done to put that chamber where it was, to have it destroyed by one person."
Lott is being held on a $10,000 bond.