She embezzled $291K, expressed remorse, then was sentenced to 33 months – San Antonio Express-News

A bookkeeper who embezzled $291,000 from Centro San Antonio expressed remorse for her criminal conduct at her sentencing Friday, but that didn’t spare her federal prison time.

“I take full responsibility and realize my actions were inexcusable,” she said to U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez before he delivered the sentence. “I am sorry, judge. Do not give up on me.”

Rodriguez said he would have been “very sympathetic” had this been her first run-in with the criminal justice system. She pleaded guilty to felony bank fraud in 1997 and was charged twice with theft by check more than 30 years ago.

“I don’t know how you were even hired” by Centro, the judge said.

Padilla came to Centro from a temp agency and was hired without a background check, an organization official said previously.

The embezzlement sparked financial turmoil at Centro, a public-private nonprofit created to help beautify downtown, and threatened to cripple its operations. It led to the resignation of its CEO and president. It also raised questions about whether the organization’s leaders and city officials should have uncovered the misconduct sooner.

Alicia Padilla, formerly Alicia Henderson, enters the federal courthouse in San Antonio Friday for her sentencing for embezzling $291,000 from Centro San Antonio. Her crimes exposed major flaws in the downtown organization's management.

Alicia Padilla, formerly Alicia Henderson, enters the federal courthouse in San Antonio Friday for her sentencing for embezzling $291,000 from Centro San Antonio. Her crimes exposed major flaws in the downtown organization’s management.

William Luther, Staff Photographer / Staff photographer

“She controlled the books almost completely,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Blackwell told the judge. “Understand, Centro management was wholly negligent in the running of this operation. They turned over almost the entire finances to Ms. Henderson with almost no oversight.”

Blackwell urged the judge to sentence her within the sentencing guideline range of 33 to 41 months, while her attorney asked for probation.

Attorney David Christian said his client accepted responsibility for her wrongdoing when she was caught and “spilled the beans” to Centro’s lawyers and auditors to make everything easier for everyone. He attributed her actions to mental health issues.

“Why does somebody do this?” Christian said. “I don’t know why other than mental health is really what I come back to.”

Padilla, who changed her surname after a 2018 divorce, has been seeing a psychiatrist weekly and is on medication.

She served as Centro’s staff accountant and officer manager, responsible for paying paying the organization’s bills. That included preparing the bills Centro submitted to the city every month for expenses ranging from sidewalk cleaning to downtown research to employee salaries.

Blackwell said the thefts began almost immediately after she was hired in mid-July 2014 and continued until November 2017, when she was caught. She wrote 118 checks to herself on Centro’s bank account at Jefferson Bank over that period. She forged Centro executives’ signatures and deposited the checks into her own bank account.

She “disguised the payments” to herself as payments to various vendors in Centro’s internal accounting systems, her plea agreement said. She used the money to pay personal expenses.

“This was long-standing, significant criminal conduct of a sophisticated means,” Blackwell said.

Rodriguez ordered Padilla to continue receiving mental health treatment. She cannot hold any type of job that involves the handling of money or financial transactions without first getting approval from the probation office.

She has until early January to turn herself in to begin serving the sentence.

Centro’s board members blamed former former CEO Pat DiGiovanni and Chief Financial Officer Tony Piazzi for mismanaging the nonprofit and failing to follow adequate internal controls. DiGiovanni resigned after the fraud was discovered and Piazzi left the organization in 2018.

“I would like to take this time to sincerely apologize to Centro,” Padilla said, trying to compose herself. “I especially want to apologize to Pat DiGiovanni and Tony Piazzi. I can never take back the damage I caused and that I am sorry for.”

Centro acts as an advocate for the downtown community, including business owners and real estate developers. It also has a multimillion-dollar contract with the city to manage the downtown public improvement district, or PID, which collects property taxes to perform extra services such as street sweeping and graffiti removal.

pdanner@express-news.net

Original News Source