The former Santa Barbara police business manager who pleaded no contest to embezzling from the department's parking citation fund was sentenced Thursday to 10 years in prison.
Karen Flores, who worked for the Police Department for 22 years, was arrested in August 2011 and accused of stealing parking revenues over seven years. The stealing started right after her supervisor’s position was eliminated due to budget cuts in 2004, and was discovered by the Finance Department, according to the District Attorney's Office.
A financial audit by the DA's Office determined that she stole more than $500,000 since 2006, and she was charged with 11 felonies and misdemeanors for theft of public money, filing false income tax documents and destroying parking citations.
The Probation Department recommended 11 years and four months of prison time, and Senior Deputy District Attorney Brian Cota, who handles many white-collar crime cases, recommended 14 years and four months.
Superior Court Judge George Eskin considered these options and decided to sentence Flores to 10 years, agreeing more with Probation’s recommendation.
Though Flores has no criminal record, she was stealing consistently for seven years, Eskin noted. That can’t be attributed to anything but a “fundamental character flaw,” he said.
She worked on the task force meant to discover where the losses and theft were coming from and just adjusted how she stole, so she could avoid being caught.
Many family members and friends wrote letters praising her as a supportive, beloved person and said there would be no point to send her to prison.
He felt set up to be “the villain” since Flores has a young son, but he said he refuses to accept responsibility for the consequences of any sentence.
Sentencing is meant to punish the person and deter others, so it does serve a point, he countered.
White-collar criminals usually don’t have a criminal record, which is why they get into positions of power and responsibility to steal in the first place, Cota said.
Defense attorney Dan Murphy argued for probation and no prison time, but Eskin denied the request.
Murphy has long argued that the city’s number of stolen money is too high and that Flores suffers from major depressive disorder, which clouded her judgment. Flores started seeing a therapist after her arrest, who wrote a letter to that effect.
Her depression increased “since she knew every day that she was stealing from the Police Department,” Murphy said. “It was wrong, but she just didn’t know how to stop.”
Cota said Flores hasn’t been diagnosed with depression and it’s not an excuse for embezzlement. He argued that Flores never took full responsibility for her actions and only admitted to stealing when she got caught and confronted.
Even then, she played down the amount of money and length of time she had been stealing, Cota said.
“Positions have been lost as a result of her stealing,” he said.
Murphy argued that Flores wasn’t exactly sure how much she had taken, and when she started, so it wasn’t an attempt to be dishonest.
The exact amount has been hard for investigators to find, what with the city’s accounting systems and Flores’ personal bank accounts, but audits concluded it was more than $500,000. The city’s insurance company did its own audit and paid out $580,000, Cota said. Premiums have increased 44 percent as a result of the theft and payout, he noted.
There was also argument about what the money was used for. Flores told her therapist it was to “maintain” and support her family, but Cota said the money was spent on things beyond basic needs. She bought a boat, all-terrain vehicles, a truck, an Expedition as a commuter car and a Jet Ski in a 15-month period.
Murphy said her moral compass and whole mindset were “askew” and she would get in even more debt by buying things she couldn’t afford.
Her family filed bankruptcy in 2012. She coincidentally lives next door to an investigator in the District Attorney's Office and reportedly drives a BMW — a sign of being “well to-do,” which shows “she doesn’t get” the impact of her actions, Cota said.
Flores didn’t speak at all during the hearing, though family members were present, and she was taken into custody by Sheriff’s Department bailiffs after the sentencing.
As a part of the case, Flores forfeits all pension benefits accrued between June 30, 2004, and Aug. 4, 2011, according to the District Attorney's Office.