A onetime administrator at the former Show Low Fire District is expected to face prison time after admitting the embezzlement of nearly $1.8 million from the agency over a seven-year period, according to court records.
Natalie Cluff Bingham had been awaiting trial in Navajo County Superior Court on a grand-jury indictment for 21 felony counts.
Under terms of a plea deal, she is expected to receive a five-year sentence for theft and a concurrent two-year term for violating a fiduciary duty for public money. Her admission to conspiracy carries a seven-year probation sentence. That count included computer tampering to falsify check records and audit reports.
If the agreement is approved by a judge, Cluff Bingham also must pay restitution for the district’s entire financial loss.
Neither the defendant nor her attorney could be reached for comment.
A state auditor general report says from 2005-12, Cluff Bingham wrote 474 checks out of the Fire District’s account to herself, her fiance (then an assistant fire chief) and her father, former Fire Chief Ben Owens. All of the funds were deposited in Cluff Bingham’s account, the report said.
Owens, who twice served as president of the Arizona Fire Chiefs Association, retired in 2012 about the time the thefts were discovered. Court records show he also was indicted, with the case still pending.
The Show Low Fire Department was run by an elected board and had 40 employees, with an annual budget of $4 million. It served about 15,000 people in and around Show Low.
An auditor general report criticized the district’s board for a lack of oversight. It also noted, “The embezzled monies came from taxes paid by district property owners that should have been used to support district operations for fire protection and preservation of life.”
When the theft was uncovered, Dennis Koenig, then chairman of the board, said fund shortages forced severe spending cuts. The district merged in 2014 with Lakeside and Linden Fire Districts to form the Timber Mesa Fire and Medical District.
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