$10K restitution ordered in $100K Tucson theft case

Judge also sentences 2 ex-Transport Dept. workers to 60 days
2013-06-07T00:00:00Z 2013-06-07T10:57:38Z $10K restitution ordered in $100K Tucson theft casePatrick McNamara Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
June 07, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Two former Tucson Department of Transportation workers were sentenced Thursday to 60 days in jail and ordered to pay $5,000 in restitution each for using city equipment and materials for side jobs.

Kurt Hough and Robert Palomarez pleaded guilty to two counts of theft each for what prosecutors and police described as a long-running scheme.

The restitution amount has been fodder for political debate since it was revealed last month, considering they and co-workers were accused of diverting nearly $100,000 of taxpayer money into their own side projects.

But Assistant Arizona Attorney General Mike Jette called the resolution "a just plea and a just sentence."

Jette said the time elapsed since the crimes and limited amount of records available made it difficult to prove many of the allegations or to justify larger restitution amounts.

"This case never was a slam-dunk," Jette said at the sentencing.

The defendants were originally charged with 11 crimes, including theft, fraud and operating an illegal enterprise for using city materials, equipment and workers for their own side jobs, dating to 2004.

They were among five Transportation Department workers who resigned or were fired in September after a yearlong Tucson Police Department investigation.

Hough was on leave during the investigation and paid $65,320. The city paid about $144,000 in total paid leave to the employees who were suspended.

Allegations made against Hough and Palomarez in court documents and a city report included a claim that Hough ordered city workers in 2006 and 2007 to build a retaining wall and pave the parking lot at Kelly Electric, 1144 W. Miracle Mile.

The documents also accused Hough of having city workers pave the driveway of his home.

In 2010, Palomarez had multiple loads of dirt and sand brought to Sunnyside High School, where city employees did work on a baseball field, according to the city report. Palomarez's brother is the coach of the baseball team.

Attorneys for Hough and Palomarez said the cases against their clients were overblown.

Palomarez's attorney, Bradley Roach, said his client had actually saved the city money by using department vehicles to pick up loads of dirt that were later used on municipal projects.

"Not just a little bit, but a ton of money," Roach said. "Is it theft to make someone better off than they were before?"

He also contended city transportation officials knew and approved of Palomarez's use of city trucks to haul the dirt.

Roach acknowledged Palomarez was wrong to use city equipment and material in 2007 to pave the parking lot of church on the south side. The job was estimated to cost $1,000.

Hough's attorney, Janet Altschuler, said allegations that her client used city materials to build a parking slab for his motorcycle at his office were misrepresented.

Rather, she said the job was done, with approval from his supervisor, to accommodate other city employees who had been relocated to the office and needed a place to park.

"Why does he have to pay restitution for something people continue to use?" Altschuler asked.

Despite the explanations and pleas for leniency, Pima County Superior Court Judge Casey F. McGinley said the defendants' actions were a breach of the public trust placed in them as city employees.

"Both Mr. Hough and Mr. Palomarez violated that trust in ways that can't be measured," McGinley said. "The fact that there was the perception of a culture that allowed this to persist is not an excuse."

After the sentences, Jette said he was grateful to the city and the Police Department for their cooperation and work on the case. He was critical of the police detective who worked on the case, however.

"I'm disappointed with the detective," Jette said, although he would not name the detective.

He also lashed out at city elected officials, saying their public comments on the case were uninformed and didn't help the case.

"Any public official who took this opportunity to comment on the case for self-promotion and knew nothing about it was totally inappropriate," Jette said.

He was particularly critical of City Councilman Steve Kozachik for saying Hough should be required to pay back the salary he earned while on leave. He said nothing in state law would have allowed for the state to make such a demand.

Kozachik said he was speaking on behalf of city taxpayers who paid to investigate and prosecute the crimes and have no remedy to get the money back.

"The prosecution did the best it could with the facts that were available," Kozachik said.

Hough and Palomarez also were given three years' probation. Both will be eligible for work release during their jail sentences.

On StarNet: If you want to know more about crime in Tucson, check out the StarNet Police Beat blog at azstarnet.com/policebeat

Contact reporter Patrick McNamara at 573-4241 or pmcnamara@azstarnet.com

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