A former bookkeeper for the Fresno Convention and Visitors Bureau was sentenced Wednesday to three months in the county jail as well as a lengthy probation term for embezzling nearly $50,000 from the nonprofit agency.
Deanna Gonzalez, 37, had pleaded guilty in June to felony grand theft. At a previous hearing, her attorney, Christopher Caine, predicted she would avoid jail time.
But after weighing the facts, Fresno County Superior Court Judge Rosendo Peña ordered jail time for Gonzalez, saying "some custody time is warranted." Gonzalez was handcuffed in the courtroom and taken away as family members looked on in shock.
Wednesday's drama was the final act in the criminal case against Gonzalez, who used bureau credit cards and fraudulent checks to make purchases at such places as Starbucks, the Dress Barn, Zena's Island Day Spa in Fresno, Target and Victoria's Secret.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Fresno Bee
In August, she agreed to repay $49,900 to the Convention and Visitors Bureau. She already has paid back $30,000, Caine said. Putting her in jail, he argued, will jeopardize her ability to repay the remainder of the money.
"She will be unable to pay any restitution if she loses her job," he said. "It's as simple as that."
Still, it could have been worse. At an August restitution hearing, prosecutors and Caine agreed that Gonzalez stole less than $50,000. If it had been determined that Gonzalez embezzled more than $50,000, Peña said at the time, she could have been sentenced to 16 months in prison instead of county jail time and probation.
Former Fresno County Supervisor Stan Oken, now president of the bureau's board, told Peña that Gonzalez deserved jail time.
He said the crime has led to bad publicity for the bureau; a loss of convention business; job cuts and a drop in morale at the agency; a reduction in membership; and increased oversight.
"Ms. Gonzalez stole taxpayers' money, and I believe she should get the maximum penalty for this crime to discourage others from thinking they can do the same thing and get away with it," he said.
Though Gonzalez and the Fresno County District Attorney's Office agreed that the amount embezzled was $49,900, the bureau maintains the actual amount stolen between July 2005 and October 2006 was $56,081. She was arrested in March.
In addition to the embezzled money, authorities want Gonzalez to pay the bureau $12,269 for costs it incurred to fix financial records that were thrown into disarray by her theft.
Caine disputed the amount and asked for a detailed accounting. That will be done, Oken said after the hearing, but Caine won't like it. Oken said the actual cost to straighten out the financial records is around $30,000, and he said the bureau may take civil action against Gonzalez for its repayment.
Gonzalez's sentence is actually five years probation, but up to a year of that could have been served in the county jail. Prosecutor Roger Wilson had sought a one-year sentence.