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O.C. Arts Employee Allegedly Skimmed

Times Staff Writer

A 10-year employee of Orange County’s premier arts venue embezzled $1.6 million over nearly six years and falsified records to conceal the thefts, prosecutors say -- until a routine annual audit uncovered irregularities that led to her arrest this week.

Ana Limbaring, 53, of Costa Mesa is being held in Orange County Jail on suspicion of stealing from the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa. Bail was set at $2 million, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Randy Pawloski.

A preliminary investigation, Pawloski said, indicates that Limbaring used her position as the person in charge of accounts receivable to skim cash from the center’s receipts, starting in 2000.

Limbaring’s responsibilities included taking deposits to the bank, Pawloski said. She also reconciled monthly bank statements that were provided to the center’s controller. The thefts uncovered so far involve cash, Pawloski said, including money from the center’s concession stands.

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Center officials and investigators are trying to establish whether checks or credit card transactions were also involved -- and whether there is more money unaccounted for.

Limbaring’s attorney, Christopher Glew, said that he expects to engage an independent accountant to review the performing arts center’s books and other documents in the case. “Right now we’re only in possession of a small portion of what they claim to have,” he said.

Auditors from KMPG discovered the irregularities Monday while conducting their annual review of the books, center spokesman Todd Bentjen said. After an internal investigation, the center notified the Costa Mesa Police Department. On Monday she was arrested and subsequently fired.

Pawloski said it appeared as if Limbaring successfully hid past thefts, but “it looks like she made a mistake” that raised auditors’ suspicions as they checked the books for the 2004-05 fiscal year, which ended June 30.

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Prosecutors charged Limbaring on Tuesday with 29 felony counts, alleging grand theft, falsifying financial statements and committing computer fraud to effect a cover-up. She is scheduled to be arraigned today at the Harbor Justice Center in Newport Beach.

After prosecutors determined that Limbaring was a Philippine national with a passport, they also asked U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to investigate whether she should be held as a flight risk. They also asked whether, assuming a conviction, she should be deported after the case is resolved and sentence served, Pawloski said.

Center officials hope to recoup the funds, although the loss would be covered by an insurance policy against theft by employees, Bentjen said.

“Obviously, we are taking this matter incredibly seriously,” he said. “We will be not only pursuing every recovery option but looking at stricter preventive measures.”

The center is Orange County’s leading venue for classical music, dance, opera and touring Broadway shows; it also offers pop and jazz programming in 3,000-seat Segerstrom Hall. Its operating budget for 2004-05 was $41.2 million.

The alleged thefts struck a sour note in what the center hopes will be a harmonious yearlong crescendo leading to the scheduled Sept. 16, 2006, opening of a 2,000-seat symphony hall across the street from the existing building. Bentjen said donations to the center -- $71.6 million remains to be raised toward the new hall’s $200-million cost -- are not funneled through the accounts receivable department and therefore aren’t affected by the alleged thefts.

In October 2000, the center fired its box office manager, Tuan “Chris” Tong, after he was accused of embezzling $42,200. Police said he had created phony ticket return refunds, which he applied to his own credit cards. Center officials said the discovery led to changes in box office procedures. Tong, an eight-year center employee, entered a guilty plea and was sentenced to 120 days in jail, three years’ probation and $200 in fines and restitution, according to Orange County Superior Court records.

Last week, another high-profile Orange County nonprofit, the Orangewood Children’s Foundation, sued its fired chief financial officer and others, accusing her in a lawsuit of wrongdoing after an audit reported more than $900,000 in forged checks had been written over seven years.

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The foundation is the fundraising arm of Orangewood Children’s Home and provides programs to educate the public about child abuse. No criminal charges have been filed; Santa Ana police are investigating.


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