A Lodi woman pleaded guilty Friday to embezzling nearly $500,000 from her employers.
Brenda Kaye Kemper, now 58, could face prison time when she is sentenced in September for the fraud at Big Valley Aviation in Stockton, said San Joaquin County Deputy District Attorney Stephen Taylor.
Kemper was arrested in January 2009 after a lengthy investigation by the San Joaquin County Sheriff's Office. She was accused of using company credit cards to buy large amounts of jewelry from Home Shopping Network, as well as paying restaurant tabs, buying clothing and going to a Lodi tanning salon.
The employee-owned business, which services helicopters and small planes, has since changed accounting procedures to prevent such a thing from happening again. The monetary loss was great enough that employees have taken furloughs and wage reductions to keep the business open, said Paul McKenzie, board president and director of maintenance.
Kemper had worked for nearly 20 years at the business and handled all the financial matters. She began wracking up bills on company credit cards, which went unknown by employees for a number of years.
McKenzie had tried to look into the company's increasing financial troubles, but said that instead Kemper contacted shareholders and got him voted off the board.
The fraud was discovered in June 2008 when Kemper took a leave to get gastric bypass surgery and someone else took over bookkeeping duties. Sheriff's investigators were contacted, and they began sifting through records.
Kemper was arrested in January 2009 and indicted by a criminal grand jury. Judge Franklin Stephenson appointed a certified public accountant to review the volumes of records, and the embezzlement total was placed at $494,000, Taylor said.
The case was set to go to trial this summer, but on Friday Kemper pleaded guilty to felony charges of grand theft and falsification of corporate books, with an enhancement that the loss was greater than $250,000.
Kemper's sentence will be determined by Stephenson in September.
In the meantime, an auction house will evaluate countless pieces of jewelry seized from her Audobon Drive home to determine their value, which will go toward restitution, Taylor said.
Kemper's court-appointed attorney, John Panerio, did not return a message left late Friday afternoon.
Big Valley Aviation, which has gone from 21 employees to 11, is trying to recover from the setback, though the economy has also caused their business to lessen. McKenzie urged other small businesses to make sure multiple people handle accounting matters.
"To totally safeguard against this you have to have total transparency," he said. "Be very vigilant and question everything from the financial aspect of the business."