Former UC Berkeley administrator charged with grand theft, embezzlement

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A former UC Berkeley administrator with a prior felony conviction was fired from her position in April and charged with grand theft and embezzlement last week.

Sonia Waters, 36, used at least $85,000 in campus and university funds during her time at the campus School of Public Health to pay for a cocktail party, Apple products, FedEx orders, American Express and Visa gift cards, her children’s private school tuition and “other questionable orders,” according to an affidavit written by UCPD Detective Harry Bennigson. Waters was convicted of felony embezzlement about five years ago.

On May 19, the Alameda County Superior Court filed two counts of grand theft of personal property, two counts of attempted grand theft of personal property, three counts of embezzlement and two counts of attempted embezzlement against Waters.

The alleged crimes occurred between April 2012 and February 2014, according to court documents.

Waters was convicted of felony embezzlement and sentenced to probation in September 2009, according to court documents.

The prior embezzlement occurred while Waters was on hiatus from UC Berkeley and working for an insurance company, Time magazine reported Thursday.

“We’re trying to determine if there have been more cases of her committing fraud,” said UCPD spokesperson Lt. Eric Tejada. There was sufficient evidence to file the nine charges Waters currently faces, Tejada said, but the investigation intends to see how “deep” the crimes go.

Tejada added that these types of investigations at UC Berkeley are uncommon.

The campus began its investigation on March 18, the same day Waters was placed on paid leave. Her employment was terminated 34 days later, according to Associate Vice Chancellor for Communication and Public Affairs Claire Holmes.

According to the affidavit, the signature of a former dean — Stephen Shortell — was listed on various invoices, but Shortell told police that he never approved the invoices. For most of Waters’ time on campus, Holmes said, Shortell was a dean in the School of Public Health. Investigators found photocopied samples of his signature in Waters’ office desk.

Holmes said Waters was originally hired into a nonsensitive position and “progressed up the ranks.” UC Berkeley’s human resources policy specifies that job reclassifications to sensitive positions require a criminal background check, which was not undertaken for Waters.

“We’ve now identified a glitch in our process and a hole in our practice,” Holmes said. “We certainly need to work on a way to address that issue.”

Time reported that the administrator in charge of Waters’ department, Denise Harter, retired last week, but Holmes said there was no connection between the investigation and her retirement.

Holmes declined to comment on whether other campus personnel had knowledge of the alleged embezzlement.

Mark Vermeulen, an attorney representing Waters, said in an email that Waters met with UC personnel “very early on” and admitted that she had misappropriated funds.

Time reported that campus administrators told Vermeulen that the amount stolen could be as much as $90,000.

“The $90,000 estimate attributed in the Time magazine article is, I believe, much higher than the amount actually lost,” Vermeulen said in an email, adding that he will continue discussions with the university and district attorney “in an effort to determine the actual loss amount and to resolve the case.”

Waters allegedly used university funds to pay for her children’s tuition at Ecole Bilingue de Berkeley, a private elementary and middle school in West Berkeley.

“We don’t have much to say other than that it’s really unfortunate and it must be really difficult for the children,” said Jennifer Monahan, communications manager at the school.

Vermeulen said in an email that he believed all or the majority of the funds dispersed to the school were returned to the university.

“We have 8,000 great employees here at UC Berkeley who do the right thing and work really hard to support the university,” Holmes said. “She is not reflective of the staff that work here.”

According to the Alameda County District Attorney’s office, Waters’ maximum sentence is five years in prison.

As of Friday, Waters was no longer in custody. She is set to appear in Oakland’s Wiley W. Manuel Courthouse on July 14 for pretrial proceedings.

Contact Angel Grace Jennings at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @angeljenningss.