- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 11, 2016

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) - A woman who oversaw finances for the former Show Low Fire District embezzled nearly $1.8 million over several years, using the money as a personal bank account, authorities alleged in an investigative report.

Natalie Cluff, also known as Natalie Bingham, pulled off the scheme by falsifying information in the district’s accounting system and submitting fake audits, the state auditor general’s office found.

Her position as the administrative manager fell under the supervision of her then-fiance and of her father, the fire chief at the time.

The report and investigation by Navajo County authorities led a grand jury to indict Cluff on felony charges of forgery, fraudulent schemes and filing false information. Cluff and her father, Ben Owens Sr., also are charged with financial crimes including conspiracy and money laundering.

The Show Low Fire District merged with two others in 2014, creating the Timber Mesa Fire and Medical District. The district’s chief, Bryan Savage, said audits have been clean in the four years since Cluff was suspended and ultimately resigned. Owens retired in 2012 after serving as fire chief for 15 years.

“We look forward to the court case and genuinely hope that those people who are found guilty of financial improprieties, that they’re held accountable,” Savage said. “It needs to happen for us to restore the public trust.”

Cluff and Owens declined to meet with state investigators, according to the report. Ron Wood, an attorney for Cluff, declined to comment Wednesday, saying he hasn’t seen any documents in the case.

In text messages cited by state investigators, Cluff wrote that she failed miserably and would take full responsibility. She is scheduled for an arraignment Monday.

The state investigators found no evidence that Cluff’s then-fiance knew of the embezzlement scheme.

A telephone message left for Owens with his wife was not immediately returned.

Employees of the Show Low Fire District told a governing board member in 2012 about what appeared to be unauthorized payments that were deleted from the accounting system. A law firm hired by the district to look into allegations of workplace misconduct outlined its concerns that it said should be addressed by law enforcement.

The state report faulted Owens and the district’s governing board for not reviewing financial records, leaving Cluff without oversight for years.

Cluff unlawfully issued more than 500 checks between February 2005 and June 2012, using the money at department and makeup stores, restaurants, and for cash withdrawals, student and auto loans, utility bills and mortgage payments, state investigators found. The checks were issued in either Owens’ name or that of her then-fiance and deposited into Cluff’s accounts, investigators said.

According to the report, the audits Cluff submitted were fraught with mistakes. At one point, investigators say Cluff posed as an auditor and used her phone to reply to messages from a bank that had become suspicious of the district’s finances.

Savage said the Timber Mesa district has put controls in place to prevent further misuse of funds, including strengthening policies against nepotism, discontinuing the use of signature stamps and hiring an outside accounting firm to do financial audits that are presented to the governing board.

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This story has been corrected to show the Timber Mesa Fire and Medical District chief’s first name is spelled Bryan, not Brian.

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