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Former University Heights finance director sentenced to probation for fifth-degree felony

Thursday, August 09, 2012 by Ed Wittenberg, Sun News

CLEVELAND — Arman Ochoa, former University Heights finance director, will not have to serve time in prison for illegally taking public money from the city.

On July 3 in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court, Judge Carolyn B. Friedland sentenced Ochoa to one year of community control, under supervision of the court’s Adult Probation Department.

He also was required to pay the court costs of $238. In 2010, he paid full restitution of the $71,292 he took from the city in unearned payroll advances and vacation leave overpayments.

Ochoa, 44, of Cuyahoga Falls, had pleaded guilty in May — retracting his former plea of not guilty — to attempted, unauthorized use of property/computer system.

He could have been sentenced to one year in prison for the fifth-degree felony, but the charge was a probational offense, said Nicole DiSanto, public information coordinator for the county prosecutor’s office.

In Ohio, first-degree felonies are considered the most serious, while fifth-degree felonies are slightly more serious than misdemeanor charges.

“As part of the conclusion of this case, Mr. Ochoa pled guilty to a felony, paid full restitution and resigned his public employment,” DiSanto said in a prepared statement from the county prosecutor’s office. “Justice has been served.”

Rothschild investigated

According to a 2008 audit of the city’s finances by the state auditor’s office, released in February 2010, Ochoa received unearned payroll advances in the amount of $69,796 from the city between 2005 and 2008.

Former University Heights Mayor Beryl Rothschild authorized payroll advances for Ochoa in the amount of $8,057, the report stated.

Ochoa also received $1,496 in a vacation leave overpayment during that period, according to the report.

He repaid the city the entire amount he owed, making the final payment of $33,452 in February 2010.

Rothschild, who stepped down as mayor at the end of 2009 due to term limits, was investigated for theft by the county prosecutor’s office but was not charged.

According to the state auditor’s report, Rothschild would have been liable for the $8,057 she authorized for Ochoa had that money not been recovered by the city.

Ochoa, who served as the city’s finance director from 2000-2009, resigned in June 2009, shortly after being placed on unpaid administrative leave by the city. He was investigated by a special prosecutor for possible misuse of public funds before the case was turned over to the county prosecutor’s office.

Ochoa’s lawyer: no theft offense

Michael Goldberg, Ochoa’s lawyer, said Ochoa never attempted to commit a “technical” theft, and he doesn’t consider what his client did to be a theft offense.

“He advanced himself money from the city’s payroll and then immediately initiated a deduction from the payroll so the city would be paid back,” Goldberg said.

“While it was certainly a mistake to do what he did, he never intended to commit a theft against the city. He paid full restitution at least a year before he was formally charged.”

Goldberg said he would have liked to have seen Ochoa not charged with a criminal offense at all. If there were any charges, he sought a misdemeanor, rather than a felony, he said.

“But this was about the most lenient sentence you can have for a felony,” Goldberg said. “I certainly thought the judge was more than fair in how she approached resolution of this case.”

University Heights Mayor Susan Infeld, who replaced Rothschild as mayor in 2010, said what happened with Ochoa was unfortunate, but she’s glad the case has been resolved.

“It was disturbing to know a person in a position of trust and authority abused that trust and took money that did not belong to him,” Infeld said. “But I’m happy the money has been paid back to the city.”

In late 2008, Ochoa went from full-time to part-time finance director, after he accepted a job as financial analyst for the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District.

He agreed to stay on in a part-time capacity through 2009 to help Rothschild get through her final year as mayor.

Felony conviction key

University Heights Deputy Police Chief Jim Williams said his department was satisfied with the outcome.

“We said to the prosecutor all along, ‘It’s a felony,’ ” Williams said. “The city got its money back.

“But we didn’t want it to end up being a misdemeanor. We wanted to make sure it stayed a felony.”

Williams said being convicted of a felony may disqualify Ochoa from certain types of public service jobs, which he said was important.

“I’m pretty sure he would not be able to get a job with a city government handling finances,” Williams said.

Goldberg said the felony charge is “obviously a black mark” on Ochoa’s record and will definitely impact his future employment.

“But hopefully he and his family will get through this and move on,” said Goldberg, who added he was not sure about Ochoa’s current employment status.

When asked why he thought it took so long for Ochoa’s case to be resolved, Goldberg said the state auditor’s investigation was very thorough, and there was an internal investigation in University Heights “just to make sure there was nothing else against Mr. Ochoa.”

“(The county prosecutor’s office) made an exhaustive review of the finances of the city, and we were willing to let them take their time to do what they needed to do,” Goldberg said. “We wanted them to see Mr. Ochoa was forthcoming, and I think that was confirmed by the investigation.”

Williams said there was a great deal of negotiation between county prosecutors and Ochoa’s lawyer, and the county prosecutor’s office was “busy with some other things going on that may have caused some delay,” he said.