In March former Town of Paonia financial officer Kristen Chesnik pled guilty to the theft of $393,000 from the public coffers. On Monday she was sentenced by 7th Judicial Court Judge Charles Greenacre to four years in prison, followed by a mandatory five years of parole. The judge could not have given her more than five years in prison, because of the parameters of the plea bargain.
Chesnik was led away by law enforcement after the sentencing hearing, which lasted less than an hour. About a dozen family members and friends were in attendance, and many wept.
Paonia Mayor Neal Schwieterman, along with town trustees Eric Goold and Larry Wissbeck, also attended the proceedings. Schwieterman testified that before the theft was discovered, the Town’s small staff of 14 – from trash haulers to the town clerk – were “a family.” He also said the town’s trustees at the time, and he, as Mayor, had “failed the public.”
Chesnik, who had no training in bookkeeping or financial management, was able to disguise the theft from the Town’s financial committee until late 2011, when it was finally discovered by an outside auditor.
Wissbeck, who now sits on Paonia’s financial committee, said such a theft could not happen again. "It was a wakeup call in every sense," says Wissbeck, "and we have put the necessary steps in place to make sure that it never happens again."
Schwieterman said he thought the sentence was fair.
"I think it balances the needs of the community with the needs particular to this case, so I think he did a very thoughtful and fair decision," Schwieterman said.
Judge Greenacre also focused on the need for a deterrent when he handed down the sentence. He said full restitution in this case is unlikely, given the amount, the largest he’s seen in 30-40 years in the district. In enumerating aggravating circumstances, he cited the length of time (over four years ) that the theft took place, the measures taken to cover it up, the fact that Chesnik apparently stole for personal gain, the escalation of the crimes, and the betrayal of trust.
The Town may be reimbursed for up to $150,000 , the amount of insurance Paonia carried. Schwieterman said he had understood they were insured for $1 million, but Chesnik was the one who bought the insurance.
When she testified on her own behalf, Chesnik apologized to the citizens of Paonia, and said she felt deep sorrow and guilt. She said she didn’t know why she had taken the money, nor did she say what she had spent it on. She thanked her friends and family, whom she said had been exposed to “meanness and scorn.” She said despite her “huge mistakes” she is a “good person.”
No one disagreed with attorney David Eisner when he summed up the sad occasion, saying "it’s just a tragic situation for everyone involved."