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Rebecca Sigeti receives six years for embezzlement

Rebecca Sigeti, 61, will serve six years in prison followed by seven years of supervised probation for embezzling $841,000.

Sigeti is the former bookkeeper for the Pine-Strawberry Water Improvement District (PSWID) and Sunny Mountain Realty.

Judge Tim Wright sentenced Sigeti May 20 after Sigeti pleaded guilty to charges of fraud and theft.

The attorney general’s office originally charged Sigeti with 40 counts, but she pleaded to four — fraudulent schemes, violation of duties of a custodian of public monies and two counts of theft.

An investigation by the auditor general found that between 2010 and 2016, Sigeti shifted money from Sunny Mountain Realty and the PSWID into her own account.

“To conceal her theft, the defendant manipulated QuickBooks by not recording fraudulent checks or inaccurately recording fraudulent checks with fake payees,” according to a press release from attorney general’s office.

Sigeti “used three (water) district accounts to embezzle and launder money. In total, Ms. Sigeti issued 32 unauthorized checks totaling $524,685” each of which had a forged board member’s signature, according to the pre-sentence report.

Sigeti then used her access to Sunny Mountain’s bank account to deposit PSWID checks.

“After district checks were deposited into the Sunny Mountain account, Sigeti withdrew $725,292 in total funds by forging 200 Sunny Mountain checks. This includes $408,922 in district funds and an additional $316,370 of Sunny Mountain funds,” according to the AG’s office.

“In totality, it was apparent Ms. Sigeti attempted to conceal her theft by altering or omitting information in the PSWID and Sunny Mountain paper and electronic records related to the unlawful checks she used,” according to the pre-sentence report.

Sigeti’s plea to avoid prison time proved futile.

In court, she apologized for violating the trust of “everybody.” She said she did it for her family, including her drug-addicted son, who ultimately died of an overdose. She also cared for her ailing husband and father.

Representatives from Sunny Mountain and the PSWID spoke in court. Others wrote letters.

James Lewin worked for Dianne Mitchell, the owner of Sunny Mountain Realty. In court, he said that Mitchell, “one of the sweetest, kindest most generous” people “was unfortunately severely taken advantage of. The heartbreak of this and the stress of dealing with the whole situation rapidly (and) greatly contributed to the rapid deterioration of Dianne Mitchell’s health and her ultimate passing,” he said.

In a letter to the court, Mitchell’s son Brad, wrote that his mother’s “relationship (with Sigeti) was not just business, it was also personal.”

“Ms. Sigeti attended many social functions at my mother’s home, and often just came over to visit,” he said.

Robert Arbuthnot, chair of the PSWID, said that since the water district has 3,200 meters, “there’s probably 6,400 victims, if you want to say there’s two people per water meter. The community is intensely interested in the outcome of these proceedings. We would like to see justice done,” he said.

In a letter to the court, PSWID customer Pam Mason expressed outrage that Sigeti put the water district’s finances at risk.

“Rebecca Sigeti was well aware that PSWID finances were tight way back in 2010, yet she continued to rob the district and taxpayers until she was caught and finally charged towards the end of 2017,” wrote Mason. “In the meantime, our water rates increased to help with the PSWID bottom line and presumably some needed repairs to the water system did not happen due to low finances.”

Many of the letters from Sigeti’s family were not included in the record.

Sigeti’s lawyer, Anna Ortiz, asked Wright to waive a prison term.

She said Sigeti took the money to help her family.

“She was under unusual duress,” said Ortiz. “If you’ve read the letter from her family ... you will understand the issues she was facing — a father coming out of a lengthy prison sentence with nowhere to go ... she took him in ... she took care of her drug addicted son and his family ... she took care of her elderly mother ... her husband became seriously ill ... to the point he can barely walk now without a walker ... she felt she needed to do something to be able to support and take care of everyone ... we are asking the mercy and understanding of the court, to give Ms. Sigeti the least possible sentence. Any sentence you give a person of her age, I think has more impact than a sentence you give a younger person.”

Ortiz said Sigeti paid Sunny Mountain back with her IRA funds.

Assistant Attorney General Mary Harriss disagreed.

“I would like to address a couple of what I believe are factual inaccuracies with what (Ortiz) said. (Sigeti) did not admit to this crime up front. When she was interviewed she declined to answer any questions about her involvement in that,” said Harriss. “Additionally, she paid back no money to Sunny Mountain or anyone else.”

Sigeti apologized to the residents of Pine and Strawberry and Mitchell.

“I violated the trust of everyone involved. I did it for my family,” she said. “I’d like the opportunity to be able to be productive and to be able to pay them back.

I’ll do everything in my power to be able to do that ... and I don’t think I can do that if I’m incarcerated.”

Wright said after Sigeti serves her prison term, she will pay back $524,685 to the PSWID and $316,370 to Sunny Mountain Realty.


Pia Wyer / Pia Wyer/Roundup  

The Phoenix Herpetological Society brought out bearded dragons, pythons and other creepy crawlers to Green Valley Park Saturday for the annual Payson Wildlife Fair. Read more on page 2.


Education
Keith resigns from school board

Payson School Board member Shane Keith this week resigned his seat after the district hired his wife as an English teacher, creating a conflict of interest.

Gila County School Superintendent Roy Sandoval has asked former board member Sheila DeSchaaf to fill out the last year and a half of Keith’s term. She has agreed to return to the school board, Sandoval said.

There are more changes coming to the district. A new superintendent will take over in July and the board this week decided to seek voter approval to renew its 10 percent budget override.

If the measure fails, the district would have to cut $1.2 million in phases from the budget. The specter of the override vote increases the pressure on a largely inexperienced school board.

A graduate of Payson High School, Keith in his two years on the board brought a fresh perspective and often skeptical questions to the consensus driven board. He was the board member most likely to challenge that consensus with careful, politely phrased questions.

Board President Barbara Underwood said, “he will be missed so much. He has been such a great board member.”

He departed reluctantly, with expressions of gratitude and affection.

Keith commented, “I want to thank the district administrators and principals. It’s not always been fun, but every day when we walk out of here, we know we’ve done our best for the students.”

Keith’s wife was hired this summer to teach English at Rim Country Middle School. The district’s conflict of interest rules bar a board member’s spouse from working for the district. The rule also prompted Gila Community College English professor Jim Quinlan to leave the board recently, after his wife got a job with the district.

However, the rule allows other relatives to work for the district. Underwood’s daughter and son-in-law both work for the district.

Keith not only graduated from Payson High School, but also works as a financial adviser for a company in the Valley. This gave him a different perspective on many issues that came before a board. For instance, his questions helped force a protracted, difficult discussion about the district pay scales for administrators. He pushed for a performance pay plan that would treat principals like CEOs, with bonuses dependent on making their goals. Teachers currently have a performance pay plan, but almost all get the pay boost after setting their own goals.

The remaining board members include Underwood and three newcomers — Michelle Marinelli, Jolyn Schinstock and Joanne Conlin.

Superintendent Greg Wyman is leaving, moving to the Valley for family reasons. His careful and soothing handling of the board resulted in mostly unanimous votes and board meetings dominated by the feel-good recognition of employees and school supporters in the community.

Stan Rentz will take over as superintendent in July. He’s the retired superintendent of a small school district in Georgia.

Sandoval has the job of appointing a new board member.

He asked DeSchaaf to return because she can hit the ground running. “With a new superintendent coming in and an override on the line, an experienced board member with a history of working well with fellow members is important.”

Keith left on a grace note. “I came into this position thinking I was going to give something, but I received a lot more than I gave on this board, whether it was correcting me when I was wrong or giving me the knowledge accumulated over your professional careers, I appreciate how welcomed I was. I appreciate everybody.”


Schools
Volunteering at hospital changed Payson High valedictorian's life

Payson High School senior Kajal Daya wasn’t sure what kind of career she wanted until she volunteered at Banner Payson Medical Center.

“Volunteering at the hospital has been life changing,” she said. “It made me want to pursue a degree in pharmaceuticals that would allow me to help individuals in the future. It was a really good experience for me”

She plans to major in chemical engineering at Arizona State University, earn her master’s degree and become a certified pharmacist.

She decided to take advantage of the school’s dual-credit program with Gila Community College to get an early start on her college education. And two years of dedication have earned her 30 college credits.

It also helped her finish at the top of her class and become this year’s valedictorian with a 4.2 grade point average.

“My goal was to get ahead in college so I would be able to graduate early,” Kajal said. “I was actually surprised when our guidance counselor, Mrs. Griffith, told me I was valedictorian.”

Her sister, Priyanka, who also finished in the top 10 percent of her class at PHS, graduated from ASU in 2017. Her younger brother, Arjun, is finishing his sophomore year at PHS.

Kajal was born in Phoenix and her family moved to Payson when she was a child.

Her family is originally from India. Her mother and her parents moved to California when her mother was a child.

Her parents manage the Rim Country Inn in Payson.

Kajal has plans when she finishes her education.

“I would love to travel throughout Europe, that’s always been a dream for me,” she said.

In addition to excelling in advanced courses, Kajal, a member of the National Honor Society, also served as treasurer for DECA and the Link Crew and president of the Payson Area Advisory Youth Council.

She qualified for DECA Internationals three consecutive years by finishing in the top three in her event at state. She competed in the hotel franchise business plan contest. She teamed with her sister the first year and with her friend, Melissa LaSpisa, the past two years.

Kajal also volunteered at the Payson Public Library and she’s taken up painting.

“My hobby is, I love to paint with oils,” she said. “I started last year after I reconnected with my kindergarten aide, Keri Parker, who works in the IT department at the high school. We’re doing a three-part project I came up with. The paintings all represent the changing of the seasons — the changing between summer and fall, fall and winter, and winter and spring. I’m working on the third and final piece now.”


Local
Astronaut turned Senate candidate gets the star treatment

Astronaut, fighter pilot and Senate candidate Mark Kelly brought his campaign to Payson last weekend, accompanied by his wife — former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

The former space shuttle commander, who also flew 38 combat missions in the first Gulf War, got the star treatment from the people who crowded into the Rumsey Park ramadas and pressed him for selfies.

But Giffords proved almost as great a draw. She survived an assassination attempt in Tucson in 2011 that killed five people and wounded 15. Her family at one point was told she had died, but she survived two shots to the head. Walking carefully with a cane, she smiled and joked with well-wishers.

Kelly said he’s a pragmatic, independent, moderate who will focus on fixing problems and applying “facts and science” to finding solutions.

“We have elected officials that don’t believe in immunization,” he said. “I don’t know how we got here, but these things are gradual. With the advent of the internet, there’s an opportunity for people to put ideas out there that aren’t based on reality. You’ve got a lot of people who get their news mostly from Facebook,” said Kelly, who has a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering. As a Navy pilot, he logged more than 5,000 hours piloting 50 different aircraft types as well as 375 carrier landings.

His twin brother, Scott Kelly, is also an astronaut, who at one point spent a year in space on the International Space Station. His parents were both police officers and he said he learned to overcome challenges by watching his tiny mother practice until she could scale a 7-foot-3-inch wall to pass the police exam. He then learned what it means to be tough by watching his wife reclaim her life after being shot in the head. He retired from NASA to help her.

Kelly’s so far running unopposed for the Democratic nomination to take on another fighter pilot — Air Force veteran Martha McSally. She was appointed by Gov. Doug Ducey to the seat left vacant by the death of Sen. John McCain, who was also a Navy fighter pilot during the Vietnam War. McSally, a former congresswoman from southern Arizona, narrowly lost a Senate race battle to Kyrsten Sinema, a former Tucson congresswoman.

If Kelly manages to defeat McSally, it would be the first time in 67 years that Arizona had two Democratic U.S. senators.

He has sworn off corporate political action committee (PAC) donations and vowed to take up campaign finance reform — one of McCain’s signature issues.

The U.S. Supreme Court in a split decision gutted campaign spending limits and disclosure requirements when it ruled corporations have all the free speech rights of citizens and therefore could spend an unlimited amount of money on elections without disclosure.

A reform group is circulating petitions to force disclosure of so-called “dark money” spending in Arizona, a move that Kelly supports.

“I don’t believe corporations are people,” he said. “A lot of folks in Washington are beholden to corporate interests for PAC money.”

One sign of that dependence lies in the administration’s decision to enact sweeping tax cuts weighted toward corporations and the richest taxpayers.

“If you’re going to give a tax cut, it ought to focus on the middle class,” he said.

The decision to not accept corporate PAC money could handicap his chances, given that spending in the last Arizona Senate race topped $100 million.

Kelly is currently tied in the polls with McSally, which means the Arizona race will likely draw national spending and attention, since it could determine control of the Senate.

Kelly staked out a series of pragmatic positions in his half hour appearance and a subsequent interview with the Roundup.

For instance, he said he’s an advocate of continuing to expand access to health care while controlling the cost. He calls the Affordable Care Act “a good step in the right direction.”

However, he’s also opposed to “Medicare for All,” the universal health care plan favored by many of the Democratic candidates for president. Kelly said he doesn’t want to disrupt the private health care plans that now cover 156 million Americans.

On the other hand, he wants to give Medicare the ability to negotiate lower prices, especially for prescription drugs — the cost of which has risen 300 percent, he said.

Although he fought in the first Gulf War in Kuwait and advocates for a strong defense, he’s also skeptical of the administration’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal while threatening possible military action.

“Clearly, we don’t want a shooting war in Iran. If we wound up in that situation with Iran, it would spread (to the whole Middle East).”

He flew hundreds of combat missions off aircraft carriers in the Straits of Hormuz during the first Gulf War and earned the flying cross. In that conflict, the U.S. and its allies forced Iraq out of Kuwait and shattered its power in the region, but then pulled back rather than occupying Iraq. The U.S. even convinced Saudi Arabia to cover most of its costs.

In that case, the U.S. “showed a lot of restraint. It took six weeks and (U.S.) casualties were low,” said Kelly.

Kelly also favors greater efforts to lower the cost of a university education, but stopped short at the call of some Democratic presidential candidates to provide free college or even forgiveness of existing student loan debt.

“We need to increase Pell grants, but I’m not in favor of simply forgiving a trillion dollars in existing debt. We already have a $20 trillion national debt and a $1 trillion annual deficit thanks to corporate tax cuts.”

He said the nation should only run deficits to offset the effects of a recession or depression.

“Deficit spending is reasonable when you have to stimulate the economy,” he said, not when you have full employment and economic growth.

He has also lobbied for added gun control measures ever since a mentally ill Tucson man shot Giffords at a meet-the-public event. The man also killed a judge, one of Giffords’ staffers, a 9-year-old girl and two others. He had been displaying escalating signs of mental illness for months. His parents had confiscated his guns and the local community college had barred him from campus. However, he bought a 9 mm Glock at a store the day of the shooting.

Kelly and Giffords established Americans for Responsible Solutions to advocate for restrictions on firearms after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in 2012. The group has pushed for universal background checks, including gun shows. The group has also pushed to bar people with domestic violence convictions from owning guns, a crackdown on gun trafficking and restrictions on silencers.

Congress has repeatedly refused to adopt those restrictions.

“Every year, 40,000 Americans die from gun violence. It’s like no where else on the planet, except maybe Yemen.”

But the failure of Congress to enact reasonable solutions is no surprise, he said.

“The folks in Washington are not addressing these issues in any coherent way,” said Kelly.

During one of his space shuttle missions, the crew discovered a gash in the side of the shuttle.

The incident prompted the pope to call the crew in orbit to offer his blessing, according to a Wikipedia account.

“When you’re orbiting Earth at 25 times the speed of sound and bad stuff starts happening, you have to solve the big problems as a team. In Washington, we don’t seem to be doing that.”

Contact the writer at paleshire@payson.com