California

Former high school employee in Desert Hot Springs admits embezzling $350,000 over 16-year career

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Deneen Kuhlman stole $350,000 over 16 years. Her lawyer said she used the money for groceries and other necessities.
(Los Angeles Times)

A former high school employee who pleaded guilty this week to embezzling nearly $350,000 from her workplace over 16 years was sentenced to five years’ probation, and she will have to wear an ankle bracelet for the next six months.

Deneen Kuhlman, who worked as a financial clerk for Desert Hot Springs High School from 1997 until December 2017, when she resigned, was ordered to pay back the full amount she stole with payments of $300 per month, said John Hall, a spokesman with the Riverside County district attorney’s office. Kuhlman must find new employment and return to court in six months, when her payment is expected to increase, Hall said. She already has paid back about $20,000.

Her attorney, David Greenberg, said he’s happy his client won’t spend time behind bars.

“She’s relieved it’s over,” he said, “and she’s thrilled that she gets to stay at home and continue to support her family the best way that she can, including her child, who has special needs.”

The theft came to light in late 2017 after a routine audit by the Palm Springs Unified School District found accounting discrepancies, the district said in a statement. The Desert Hot Springs Police Department was then asked to investigate.

During that time, Kuhlman confessed the crime in a letter to the school’s principal, Greenberg said. After writing the letter, she was hospitalized after a suicide attempt, her lawyer said.

“At some point, the guilt was so overwhelming — this is coming from a woman with no records whatsoever, who is loved and respected in the community — and she decided to confess what she had done,” Greenberg said.

Kuhlman embezzled the money by printing out numbers in a font similar to ones used on bank statements. She then would cut them out, tape them onto the statements she handled and make photocopies, which she submitted to school officials, police told the Desert Sun.

Greenberg said his client struggled financially and spent the money on necessities, including groceries and medical bills. According to Transparent California, which documents government employees’ pay, Kuhlman’s salary was $46,564 in 2016.

Joan Boiko, a spokeswoman for Palm Springs schools, said the district would continue to take measures to prevent such incidents.

“Something like this should never have happened, and the district has a zero tolerance for any illegal behavior by our employees,” schools Supt. Sandra Lyon said in a statement after the theft was discovered. “We are appalled that this type of egregious fraud could have occurred, and the missing funds will be replaced by the district.”

Lyon said the district filed a claim with its insurance company to recover the stolen money.

alejandra.reyesvelarde@latimes.com

Twitter: @r_valejandra