The wife of San Luis Obispo County’s top elections official was sentenced to serve jail time following a tearful hearing in her embezzlement case.
Sherry Gong was sentenced by Superior Court Judge Jacquelyn Duffy to 180 days in County Jail for stealing about $32,000 from the Atascadero High School band’s booster club, for which she served as treasurer.
Gong, 48, entered open pleas last month to three felony counts of grand theft by embezzlement. In an open plea, sentencing is left up to a judge’s discretion.
Gong tearfully addressed the court after Wednesday’s sentencing, saying, “I’m truly, truly sorry.”
Gong has repaid the stolen money to the booster club, but Deputy District Attorney Michael Frye told the judge at the hearing that the organization has identified roughly $1,270 in additional fees incurred because of the thefts. Gong will have to repay those funds as well.
Motion to reduce charges denied by judge
Frye asked Duffy to impose a sentence of one year in County Jail.
Duffy cited a Probation Department recommendation in issuing the 180-day sentence, of which Gong is likely to serve less than half due to various automatic credits.
She will also be on probation for three years and is prohibited from working or volunteering in any position that would give her access to an organization’s finances.
Her attorney, Guy Galambos, requested the charges be reduced to misdemeanors, but that motion was denied by Duffy.
“It appears to me that this conduct is felonious conduct,” Duffy said, though she noted that Gong could again motion the court for charge reductions after she completes her probation.
The maximum possible sentence Gong faced was four years and four months in state prison.
Though she is currently a convicted felon, the wife of the county’s elected clerk recorder will still be able to vote if she completes her probation without any problems, according to the California secretary of state.
Gong admitted in a statement provided by her attorney to embezzling “a large sum of money” from the booster club to help a family member facing an unspecified emergency last year, although one of the three charges was alleged to have occurred well before the family incident.
“About a year ago (April 2018) Sherry Gong was subjected to a highly stressful family crisis. A close family member called her in a panic. He 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,” reads a statement from Galambos.
Gong was “frightened and embarrassed” and did not tell her husband about the situation, according to Galambos.
Club director calls embezzlement a ‘personal violation’
Galambos appealed to Duffy at Wednesday’s hearing, noting Gong’s clean criminal history and the nonviolent nature of the offense in arguing for between 10 and 30 days in jail.
Galambos said Gong actually approached the school’s band director about the stolen money prior to police getting involved, but that the band director would not speak to her.
“She has expressed her deep remorse and regret,” Galambos said.
But Frye told Duffy that Gong waited to offer to repay the money “until she was going to get caught.”
“I would disagree that Mrs. Gong sought to repay the funds at the earliest possible moment,” Frye said. “This was a large amount of money, and this was a significant breach of trust.”
A District Attorney’s Office representative read aloud a written statement from the band booster’s current treasurer, who said the theft was a “personal violation” to the students, that the crimes “destroyed” the club’s financial security, and that the organization was unable to secure scholarships due to the lack of funds.
“That old saying that hindsight is 20-20 is never truer than it is with financial crimes,” the statement read. “Sherry Gong knew what she was doing when she took from the kids.”
In explaining her decision, Duffy noted that the crime has brought about serious consequences and significant embarrassment to Gong, who Duffy said she believed committed the crimes to help her family.
Gong is scheduled to report to County Jail to serve her sentence Dec. 2.