Despite pleas from her attorney and letters of support from nearly 30 friends and family members, the former supervisor of the Santa Barbara Police Department’s business office who admitted stealing more than $600,000 in parking ticket payments was sentenced Thursday to 10 years in state prison. She was also ordered to pay just under $685,000 in restitution and $112,000 to the Franchise Tax Board.
Karen Flores had worked for the SBPD for 15 years, pocketing cash and fudging records during a seven-year period from June 2003 to August 2011. She was reportedly motivated to steal because she had been given more responsibility but without a raise; her take-home salary at the time was approximately $55,000 a year. Flores was arrested in August 2011 after, ironically, being assigned to a task force charged with finding out what had happened to the missing funds. Though she tried to explain away the lost money by claiming the department’s tracking system was inaccurate, authorities would later find parking tickets she destroyed or altered.
Flores, 48, was represented Thursday by attorney Dan Murphy, who argued his client had fully admitted her guilt and was sufficiently remorseful that she should be placed on probation, not put behind bars. During her years of embezzling, Murphy said, Flores’s judgment had been clouded by a major depressive disorder brought on by postpartum depression, and that her sadness was only exacerbated by the guilt she experienced from stealing on a weekly and sometimes daily basis.
Admitting that Flores was living beyond her means during the seven years of theft, Murphy said she and her family weren’t living an overly extravagant lifestyle. She stole because she had to as soon as the debt started piling up, and family members came to rely on her for support, he went on. “Once the hamster wheel started spinning, she couldn’t get off,” he said. Continuing with his argument for probation, Murphy said putting Flores in prison would unfairly separate her from her 6-year-old son during his formative years and that she had been a perfectly law-abiding citizen until the summer 2003. “She never even had a parking ticket!” he exclaimed, eliciting titters around the room and a chuckle from Judge George Eskin.
Prosecutor Brian Cota countered the points one by one, noting first that Flores’s supposed depression was never officially diagnosed and that the term was only used in a letter written by the counselor Flores started seeing after her arrest. The counselor, Cota went on, was justifiably in her patient’s corner but was basing her assessment on self-reported information. If Flores is depressed, Cota said, it’s because she’s been caught and is facing substantial punishment. Plus, there was nothing to suggest in her letters of support that Flores had displayed signs of depression over the years. On the contrary, said Cota, she was known as a hard worker with an active lifestyle and considered by those who knew her to be upbeat and reliable. And while she may indeed be remorseful, the prosecutor went on, it’s for herself and her impending sentence, not for the betrayal of her employer and the ripple effect it had on the department and the rest of the Santa Barbara community.
Cota talked about how Flores bought a boat, two cars, two ATVs, and jet skis in one 15-month period, also purchasing golf clubs, wake boards, and a foosball table over the years. He conceded that she and her family were living beyond their means in their home in Santa Ynez, but stated, “People do that all the time without stealing. You make sacrifices.” While Murphy said more than once that Flores had used much of the stolen money to support family members during hard times, Cota said her bank statements didn’t reflect that reality. Flores’s husband, he noted, made around $30,000 a year working construction — she made around $55,000 — but that the family was annually funneling around $160,000 through their bank account that went toward high-end personal expenses. Plus, he said, a good deal of the stolen money was cash that was never reported or deposited. Cota said there was no evidence to suggest Flores’s husband was aware of her thieving and that he avoided any tax-related charges since she was in charge of the family’s bookkeeping.
Traveling 80 miles to and from work every day, Flores drove a Ford Excursion, which gets around 15 miles a gallon and is one of the most impractical commuter cars on the market, Cota continued. So why, he rhetorically asked, buy such a vehicle in the first place? “To tow the boat,” he answered. Cota also noted that since Flores was released on her own recognizance earlier this year — she had only spent a few days in County Jail — she’s been spotted driving a BMW by her next-door neighbor, a DA investigator. “She just doesn’t seem to get it,” Cota said, calling Flores greedy and without a functioning moral compass. The SBPD, which pulls in around $4.5 million a year in parking tickets, spent $75,000 investigating the lost money.
Before he handed down his sentence, Judge Eskin made it clear he had struggled with the decision and had special concern for Flores’s young son. And though he said he appreciated Flores admitting her guilt and trying to make amends, her actions had profound effects. People lost their jobs and services were cut to make up for the lost funds, he said, and the SBPD unfairly suffered a black eye because of her selfish acts. Before making his final determination, Eskin recited a passage about mercy from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice that had been included at the end of Murphy’s legal brief. He said while some mercy was warranted — he declined to impose the maximum sentence of 14 years, 4 months — the law dictated Flores spend considerable time behind bars to reflect how much money she took and for how long.