Show Low fire district manager indicted in $1.8M embezzlement case
Authorities say a woman who oversaw finances for the former Show Low Fire District embezzled nearly $1.8 million over several years.
A report from the Arizona Office of the Auditor General released Wednesday detailed the allegations against Natalie Cluff based on a probe that was launched in 2012.
The auditor accused Cluff of illegally issuing 474 checks totaling $1,794,594. She used it for retail purchases, withdrawals, debt and for her siblings, the auditor's statement said. Cluff also submitted fake audits, the report said.
The money came from taxpayers and should have gone toward district operations for fire protection and preservation of life, according to the auditor's statement.
A Navajo County grand jury recently indicted her on 21 felony counts related to theft, misuse of public monies, fraudulent schemes, computer tampering, forgery, and false filing, the statement said. An arraignment was scheduled for Monday in Navajo County Superior Court.
Cluff's high-ranking position granted her access to the district's finances, including preparing payroll, overseeing accounts, reconciling bank and credit-card statements, and budgeting, the auditor's report said.
Her father, former Show Low Fire District Chief Ben Owens Sr., also is accused of financial crimes.
Checks were reportedly made out to Ben Owens and Cluff's then-fiance, a former assistant fire chief, with false memo explanations for the checks' purpose.
The auditor's report was critical that Cluff was not properly supervised, reporting only to her father and her then-fiance. She was accused of tampering and false filing information recorded in the district's accounting software "to conceal her misconduct," the report said.
Owens and Cluff each were indicted on four felony counts related to conspiracy, illegally conducting an enterprise, assisting a criminal syndicate, and money laundering.
A telephone number listed for Cluff was disconnected. She did not respond to messages sent to possible e-mail addresses.
Owens did not immediately return a telephone message left with his wife Wednesday.
The auditor's report said Cluff reportedly texted an acquaintance saying she would take full responsibility, "her father and her then-fiancé were guilty only of trusting her, and she failed miserably."
"Ms. Cluff also wrote to her mother that she had ruined her then-fiancé’s career and reputation."
After discovering the financial shortfalls, the Show Low Fire District merged with Lakeside and Linden Fire Districts to form the Timber Mesa Fire and Medical District. They have hired an accounting firm and discontinued processes that would allow someone to easily falsify records, the auditor's report said.
"Public officials have a fiduciary duty to protect and control monies entrusted to them by taxpayers," Lindsey Perry, special investigative unit manager for the Auditor General's Office, said in an email statement to The Republic Wednesday.
"Although no internal control system can completely prevent dishonest behavior such as Ms. Cluff’s, it is our hope that public officials within fire districts and other entities throughout this state will take note of this report, and that it causes them to ask questions and to reassess their own controls over public monies."
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
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