People cannot steal hundreds of thousands of dollars, say they're sorry and promise to pay it back — all without going to jail. That sends the wrong message, Judge Charles Greenacre said Monday as he sentenced Kristen Chesnik to four years in prison.
Chesnik, the Town of Paonia's former finance officer, admitted stealing nearly $400,000 from town coffers over a four-year period. A plea agreement stipulated to a prison sentence of no more than five years; a pre-sentence investigative report completed by the probations department recommended five years of probation.
While Judge Greenacre agreed with the assessment that probation would allow Chesnik to immediately begin paying restitution to the town, he said he could not ignore the amount of money involved in the class three felony — it's the largest case of embezzlement he's seen in over 30 years on the bench. He also cited the length of time over which Chesnik stole from the town, the extent to which she covered up her thefts, and the betrayal of trust of residents and fellow employees.
Probation would unduly depreciate the seriousness of the offense, the judge concluded. And even though he ordered restitution, Judge Greenacre said, "I see no way Ms. Chesnik could come close to paying reparation to the Town of Paonia in any significant amount."
During the sentencing hearing in district court, Judge Greenacre voiced many of the questions heard on the streets of Town of Paonia. Why wasn't the theft detected earlier? Wasn't there an external audit? How has the theft impacted the town? Have services been curtailed? Have projects been placed on hold? What did Chesnik use the money for?
During the course of the hearing, it was disclosed that Chesnik was hired as a receptionist in 2004 and promoted to bookkeeper in 2005 even though she had no training or experience in that field. One day she was asked to get $100 cash for contract labor. The money was not needed after all, and no one asked for an accounting of the funds. With no oversight, she discovered it was easy to take small amounts from town coffers. Early on, she took $20,000 a year ... then $37,000 ... then $48,000. The years 2010 and 2011 were a "free-for-all," deputy district attorney Kerry Yoder said. Roughly 90% of the missing funds, or $258,000, was taken in 2010-2011. CBI Agent Zamora speculated she wanted to get caught.
As for the use of the funds, defense attorney David Eisner said some of the money was used to remodel Chesnik's two homes. The rest was spent on her kids and given away freely to any individual or group in need.
Paonia trustee Larry Wissbeck is now one of the two town council members serving on the finance committee, which is charged with oversight of taxpayer funds. Fortunately, he testified at the hearing, he is retired and is able to spend hours and hours of time checking the books. His predecessors were not retired and did not have that time. He enumerated the many methods Chesnik used to steal funds and talked about the steps the town has taken to prevent a similar occurrence in the future. The town, he added, has hired "an honest bookkeeper — one who does not lie and cheat and steal."
He urged the judge to sentence Chesnik to jail. "There can be no restitution for all the harm she caused Paonia," he said.
Mayor Neal Schwieterman testified that the town is audited annually, as required by law, but auditors look at "materiality," meaning transactions above a certain dollar amount. Chesnik consciously made sure her thefts fell under that dollar amount, he said. Most of the money was stolen from the town's enterprise funds, not from the general fund which covers the majority of the town's projects and services.
He spoke at length about the betrayal of trust, shouldering some of the blame himself. "We failed the public," he said. "I failed the public."
Don Pierce was a character witness for Chesnik. "I don't hold her guiltless but there were too many fingers in that pie," he said.
Finally, Chesnik addressed the court. She apologized to the citizens of Paonia, expressing deep sorrow and "a significant amount of guilt." She said she's deeply ashamed of violating the trust of the community and those she loves. "I owe society a debt and I realize that," she said, promising to perform community service and be an active volunteer for Paonia activities.
After the sentence was announced, Chesnik was taken into custody immediately. It was the first night she's spent in jail since being charged with theft last year.blog comments powered by Disqus