Gambling prompted embezzlement, records say

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A gambling addiction led a Cortez woman to embezzle approximately $280,000 from the Empire Electric Association over a threeyear period, according to court documents.

In December 2014, Lisa Balderrama pleaded guilty before U.S. Magistrate David West in Durango to one charge of making false statements on a tax return.

Balderrama started work for Empire Electric in its Cortez office in December 2005 as a customer-services representative who processed customer payments, according to the plea agreement.

But at the end of October 2012, accounting employees with Empire found a discrepancy of more than $200,000 between the manual check register and internal bookkeeping. They questioned Balderrama, who assured them that everything was fine and she would find the discrepancy.

She was questioned again in December 2012 and said she had found the discrepancy and would explain it the following day; however, the next day she called in sick.

Then, the following Monday, she “reported to work and confessed to her superior that she had been stealing from Empire Electric,” the plea agreement states.

Balderrama reportedly said she had been stealing money when customers paid their bills in cash, tweaking the books to hide the discrepancies. She said she “had a gambling problem and had spent most of the money on gambling.” In 2006, she won $200,000 in the Colorado Lottery, according to the plea agreement.

Witnesses at six local convenience stores identified Balderrama as having frequently purchased lottery tickets from them, the document states.

Her husband said he was unaware of the thefts, as she handled all their finances. An accounting firm hired by Empire found that Balderrama’s actions involved “a fairly traditional lapping scheme where one customer’s payment was posted to another customer’s account to conceal theft of payments received in currency.”

Balderrama subsequently confessed to Cortez Police and resigned from Empire. She was charged on Oct. 20, 2014, and pleaded guilty before Magistrate Judge West on Dec. 2.

She reportedly failed to report a combined total income of $277,035 on her tax returns in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013, resulting in $64,477 in unpaid federal taxes. Under the plea agreement, she is to pay restitution of that amount.

“Empire appreciates the work the U.S. Attorney’s office has done in obtaining the plea agreement and looks forward to assisting the 22nd Judicial District Attorney’s office in Cortez in its criminal investigation and prosecution,” Empire Electric said in a press release.

“Empire’s own internal investigation and an independent forensic investigation identified areas that needed improvement in the Empire accounting department, and those areas were promptly addressed.”

All losses incurred by Empire were reimbursed by its insurance carrier, according to the release. “No Empire member or customer has been injured by Balderrama’s actions,” it stated. “Balderrama’s actions will not result in any increase in rates or fees for Empire members or customers.”

Balderrama is tentatively scheduled to be sentenced in U.S. District Court in Durango in March or April, 2015. She could be sentenced from 12 to 41 months in prison and fined from $3,000 to $300,000.

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From January 2015.