Community Shocked Over Onion Money Embezzlement

A community is still in shock over embezzlement in onion country. The woman who was supposed to help farmers make more money is accused of taking money from them. With over a half a million dollars gone over seven years, the biggest question is how.

It is almost impossible to go anywhere in Vidalia and not see onions. The sweet onion crop has put Vidalia on the map. That's why many are shocked someone would steal from a local group that helps sell their onions world wide. "It was devastating to know somebody would take that much money from a company or business," said Gloria Jordan of Lyons.

But the money came out from the pockets of onion farmers throughout the region. For each pound of onions they sell, farmers donate to the Onion Growers Commission. The group travels the country and markets the onion everywhere. Former commission manager Tina Wheeler faces 300 charges of theft, fraud and false documents in connection with $639,000 in missing funds over seven years.

"What happened to the audit?" asked Vidalia resident Elaine Trull. "I thought businesses were audited every two years. For it to go on for such a long period of time, something wasn't right."

No one connected to the group is saying much. This year's commission chairman referred us to the interim manager and she referred us to a USDA spokesperson in Washington, DC, because the authority to run the commission goes through state and federal agriculture departments. He says with their help, the Growers Commission has changed bank accounts and created new security procedures.

For now all anyone can do is wonder where the money went and what it could have done for the crop and the community.

A magistrate judge has set Wheeler's bond at $1.2 million. Until she pays that, she's in the Toombs County jail.

Reported by: Dal Cannady, dcannady@wtoc.com