A former employee at the Empire Electric branch in Cortez has pleaded guilty in connection with embezzling about $280,000 from the utility company.
Lisa Kay Balderrama, 50, of Cortez, pleaded guilty this month in Durango before U.S. Magistrate Judge David L. West to making false statements on a tax return. Balderrama will be sentenced on April 8, 2015.
According to court records, Balderrama began working for Empire Electric in December 2005 as a customer service representative. In October 2012, company accountants approached Balderrama, questioning whether certain deposits had been made.
In mid-December 2012, she was again questioned about discrepancies and about a $277,000 electronic transaction she had posted on Oct. 22, 2012. The following Monday, Balderrama reported to work and confessed that she had stolen about $280,000 from Empire Electric, according to the investigation.
The investigation revealed that Balderrama, from 2009 through 2012, stole money from customers who paid cash for their electric bills.
According to U.S. Attorney John Walsh and IRS agent Stephen Boyd, Balderrama failed to report a combined total income of $277,035 on her tax returns in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013. The tax loss to the IRS totaled $64,477.
Balderrama entered her guilty plea to one count of a false statement on a tax return on Dec. 2. The offense carries a penalty of up to three years in federal prison, and a fine of up to $250,000.
According to Josh Dellinger, Empire assistant general manager, the accounting department discovered the discrepancy in funds.
"Balderrama was confronted and confessed to her superiors that she had taken the funds," Dellinger said. "Empire officials immediately contacted the Cortez Police Department."
Dellinger said internal and independent investigations identified areas that needed improvement in the accounting department, and those areas have been addressed.
"All losses incurred by Empire were reimbursed by our insurance carrier," said Dellinger. "Balderrama's actions will not result in any increase in rates or fees for Empire members or customers."
Balderrama had been an employee at The Cortez Journal, leaving in September 2005. No other details about her employment were available at press time.