Wife of SLO County clerk admits to taking $32,000 from Atascadero High School band
An arrest warrant was recalled for the wife of San Luis Obispo County’s top elections official Monday after her attorney posted $25,000 bail in cash for three felony embezzlement charges, court staff confirmed Tuesday.
Sherry Gong will avoid being physically booked into the San Luis Obispo County Jail for fingerprinting and other normal booking procedures at least until her scheduled arraignment July 22, when prosecutors may request she make an appearance at the jail.
But her attorney said by email Tuesday that she already gave an Atascadero police detective a cashier’s check for approximately $28,500 to repay the club when she was first interviewed by law enforcement in April.
She’s accused of taking about $32,554 of funds meant for Atascadero High School’s music program between July 2017 and April 2018.
Gong admitted in a statement provided by her attorney Monday to embezzling “a large sum of money” from the Atascadero High School band’s booster club to help a family member facing an unspecified emergency last year, although one of the three charges is dated well before the family incident.
Three charges of embezzlement
The statement by attorney Guy Galambos came hours after the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office announced that it had filed three felony counts of grand theft by embezzlement. Assistant District Attorney Eric Dobroth said Monday that Gong faces a maximum of four years and four months in County Jail if convicted of all charges.
Gong, 47, the wife of County Clerk-Recorder Tommy Gong, said by phone Monday that the criminal case has nothing to do with her husband, and court documents do not mention his name.
Sherry Gong was treasurer of the AHS Band & Pageantry Booster Club when the alleged crimes occurred.
Requests for further information and comment to eight officials from the Atascadero Unified School District, Atascadero High School, and the AHS Band & Pageantry Booster Club were not answered Monday or Tuesday.
It is unclear to what extent the school’s music program has been affected by the alleged thefts. The most recent tax filings for the booster club immediately accessible via public records Tuesday show the booster club reported having a balance of between $84,000 and $89,000 in assets between 2014 and 2017.
On Tuesday, Atascadero police Lt. Robert Mollé told The Tribune that the department’s investigation began after receiving a report from Atascadero High School staff on March 27. Sherry Gong was interviewed by a detective on April 19. Mollé said he couldn’t immediately provide any further information.
The District Attorney’s Office’s complaint alleges Sherry Gong stole a total of $32,554 between July 2017 and April 2018; specifically, it is alleged that Gong embezzled $3,104 on July 5, 2017, $9,850 on April 24, 2018, and $19,600 on April 24, 2018.
Sherry Gong’s explanation
But on Monday, defense attorney Galambos wrote in a prepared statement that Gong was subjected to a “highly stressful family crisis” in April 2018 in which a close family member begged her for a large sum of money he needed within three days, “declaring it was a matter of life or death, but he wouldn’t elaborate on the details,” the statement reads.
Galambos wrote that Gong “borrowed” funds from the booster club “with the intention of repaying it within the month,” but the family member never paid her back.
Gong attempted to raise the missing money by borrowing from extended family members and selling some of her jewelry, Galambos said, before she was contacted by detectives.
Galambos’ statement did not address the $3,104 embezzlement that the DA’s Office says occurred on July 5, 2017.
On Tuesday, Galambos clarified that Gong voluntarily met with an Atascadero detective and took responsibility for taking the money in April. At that time, she also provided the officer with a cashier’s check for approximately $28,500 to repay the booster association, which was the most amount of money she could raise without telling her husband, Galambos said.
That check was held as evidence until the the District Attorney’s office agreed to release it last week as partial reimbursement, Galambos said.
He added that he and Gong have cooperated with the Atasacadero Police Department and the District Attorney’s Office for several months as they have reviewed all of the evidence.
Discrepancies in the story
Asked about the omission of the alleged July 2017 embezzlement in his statement Monday, Galambos said that neither he nor his client have yet seen any of the reports or bank documents that will supposedly be used as evidence in the case.
“We will need to review all of the evidence when it’s available,” Galambos wrote in an email.
Asked whether he or his client is unaware of any embezzlement taking place prior to April 2018, Galambos replied, “That’s basically correct.”
Galambos said Gong intends to pay the booster association back for “any and all missing money” and “would like to resolve this case as soon as possible.”
Although Galambos said Gong does not have any agreement with prosecutors, Gong “does not intend to go to trial on this case.”
He would not say whether she intends to plead guilty at her July 22 arraignment.
Soon after it was announced that charges had been filed, Tommy Gong sent a press release requesting “privacy for family matter” and stating that he will stand by her.
“My wife, Sherry Gong, is being charged for some criminal actions. I was not aware of this matter until I received a call from an Atascadero Police Department detective recently, and I am not implicated in these matters,” the release says.
“This is a painful, personal matter, and I ask that my family and I be granted privacy regarding this matter. I deeply love and care for my wife and family, and I will stand by her side and support her during this very difficult time,” it says.