Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Theft could lead to loss of family farm

Sue Cenarrusa must repay $350,000 she admits embezzling

Express Staff Writer

Michael and Sue Cenarrusa could lose their Richfield farm if unable to repay $350,000 that Sue Cenarrusa has admitted embezzling from a horse ranch in King Hill.

Sue Cenarrusa, the executive director of the federal Farm Services Agency office that oversees agency programs in Blaine and Lincoln counties, was ordered to repay the money by an Elmore County 4th District Court judge earlier this month. She was also sentenced to 30 days in jail and placed on 10 years probation.

Cenarrusa has been placed on indefinite paid administrative leave from her FSA job, Idaho FSA Executive Director Wayne Hammon said Tuesday. The embezzlement case is not related to Cenarrusa's employment with FSA, but the agency has started an internal review of government farm subsidy funds that were handled by her, he said.

Cenarrusa pleaded guilty in April to felony grand theft for embezzling $350,000 from Why Worry Ranch in King Hill over a 10-year period when she was employed part-time as a bookkeeper.

Prior to sentencing, Cenarrusa signed a legal agreement in a separate civil action filed against her by Why Worry Ranch owner Anne Reynolds. In that agreement, Cenarrusa and her husband, Michael, agreed to turn over ownership of their Richfield farm and farming equipment to Reynolds if full restitution is not made by Nov. 1, 2006.

Reynolds said she is uncertain of the size or value of the Cenarrusa farm.

But in addition to the $350,000 embezzled from the ranch, Reynolds said she has accrued costs of an additional $100,000 for attorney and accounting expenses, late payment and overdraft penalties and lost interest because of Cenarrusa's actions.

Neither Michael nor Sue Cenarrusa could be reached for comment.

District Court Judge Michael Wetherell accepted a plea agreement and sentenced Cenarrusa in Mountain Home on June 5. She was given a 90-day period in which to serve 30 days in the Elmore County Jail and fined $750.

As part of her 10-year probation, Cenarrusa was ordered to make full restitution plus interest and was barred from having either checking or credit card accounts in her name.

The court gave Cenarrusa a withheld judgment, which means that the charge can be removed from her record if she satisfies provisions of her 10-year probation.

"If she violates her probation, she loses her withheld judgment, and in that case the court can sentence her at its discretion," said Elmore County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Lee Fisher.

He said Wetherell indicated a 5- to 14-year prison sentence would likely be imposed.

Reynolds said Cenarrusa worked for her as a part-time bookkeeper for 18 years and was both a trusted friend and confidante until August 2004 when financial problems were uncovered with the business.

She said Cenarrusa admitted taking the money after a financial review showed that Cenarrusa had issued unauthorized checks to herself and hidden monetary records to conceal her actions.

In light of the amount of money taken, Reynolds said she's not satisfied with Cenarrusa's sentence. "That seems like a lot of money for only 30 days in jail," she said. "Yes, I think it's light."

In a victim's impact statement submitted to the court prior to Cenarrusa's sentencing, Reynolds wrote: "If she robbed a bank, stole a pickup or held someone up for $100, she would receive a stronger sentence. Martha Stewart stole less and served more time in jail."

Fisher declined to comment on the severity of the sentence, except to say that plea bargain arrangements are still subject to court approval.

"The court can decide to accept things, or not accept things," Fisher said. "The court ultimately on sentencing issues is the one with the discretion to decide what to do."

Hammon said Cenarrusa, a 15-year government employee, has been executive director of the Shoshone FSA office for eight years. She was placed on paid administrative leave on June 6, and will remain in that status until the agency completes its review. Hammon said he only learned about the embezzlement case against Cenarrusa on June 5, the day she was sentenced.

He said steps have been taken to keep the Shoshone FSA office "fully functional" and farmers need not worry about their subsidy programs.

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