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Fiegenbaum sentenced to jail for Discovery Center embezzlement

— THE DALLES — Lori Fiegenbaum stood and turned in The Dalles courtroom Monday so she was facing employees and officials from the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center before delivering her apology for embezzlement.

“I want to express my most sincere remorse and regret for what I’ve done,” said Fiegenbaum, 51, who entered a guilty plea to the theft of $94,441.62 while she was the center’s bookkeeper.

“It is my sole purpose to make the Discovery Center whole again. I’m truly sorry for my behavior and I hope one day you’ll forgive me.”

Fiegenbaum was directed by Wasco County Circuit Judge John Wolf to report to the Northern Oregon Regional Correctional Facilities by 5 p.m. Jan. 14 to begin serving a one-year jail sentence. She cannot earn “good time” reductions for the time behind bars and will be on probation for 60 months once she is released.

While on probation, she will be under court supervision to pay back the remaining balance of $84,441.62 on the funds she admitted to stealing between January 2006 and December 2011.

She has already paid $10,000 of her debt in exchange for being able to remain outside jail following her arrest in September 2012.

Fiegenbaum is prohibited during probation from working as a bookkeeper or in any position that oversees financial records. In addition, she has to apply any retirement account funds toward her debt and use proceeds from the sale of any personal property for that purpose.

She cannot join any civic organization that requires membership dues or attend charitable fundraisers. She is not allowed to set foot on the center’s property and cannot have contact with past and present employees or board members.

If Fiegenbaum violates her probation, she will spend two additional years in prison as punishment for her crimes.

Wasco County District Attorney Eric Nisley said the terms of the settlement agreement between the state and Fiegenbaum were intended to focus her energies on getting money back into the coffers of the Discovery Center.

“There are a lot of people in the community who believe I’ve been too lenient and there are others who think this is too harsh,” he said. “These cases are very difficult because someone is hired as a bookkeeper or accountant to keep track of your money so you don’t lose it. You hire that person so you can protect your money, so you know where it’s invested, but that is the person who has the training and knowledge to cover up a theft.”

He said Fiegenbaum had attended meetings at the center during the past several years where discussions were taking place about financial problems. He said while officials were discussing how to remedy the situation, she was taking money that was needed to cover operational costs.

The center is the interpretive site for the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area and also serves as the Wasco County Historical Museum.

Nisley said center officials immediately contacted authorities after learning about the embezzlement but were, nevertheless, accused by some community members of trying to conceal Fiegenbaum’s crimes. He said, in actuality, he asked them to preserve the integrity of the case by not disclosing details about the theft to the public.

“The Discovery Center has never once tried to keep this a secret and I want to applaud them for their discretion and their diligent cooperation with law enforcement,” he said. “I sincerely hope the best for all the parties involved.”

Fiegenbaum was employed by the center in 2005 and let go in early 2012 after anomalies in financial statements led auditors from Friend and Reagan CPAs to further scrutinize the books.

Bill Dick, chair of the center’s board, told Wolf at Monday’s sentencing hearing that it was a “sad day” but one that was needed to provide resolution for the hardship Fiegenbaum had caused the nonprofit organization.

“We’ve wanted this day to come,” he said. “We need this day to get on with atonement that will make things right.”

He said administrators were “very much in a state of bewilderment and confusion” after the theft was revealed because they hadn’t suspected criminal activity. He said the breach of trust was especially hurtful to Carolyn Purcell, executive director, who had relied upon Fiegenbaum and regarded her as a friend.

“Those things (set out in plea agreement) have to come through before we have forgiveness and, ultimately, redemption,” he said.

Kirsten May, an employee at the center, said she had been raised that “if you want something you work for it” while Fiegenbaum had taken a shortcut to achieve greater earnings.

“The money she stole from the Discovery Center could have been used for many proactive programs,” she said.

Dan Ericksen, incoming chair of the center’s board, said people involved with the organization had drawn together “like a family” when tough economic times began. For that reason, he said Fiegenbaum’s betrayal had been very difficult to deal with; especially when reserve funds had to be drained to make up for the financial loss she caused.

“The black eye the board and Discovery Center received from something like this will affect our ability to raise funds in the future,” he said.

Brandon Calheim of the Portland firm Brendale, McCauslin and Lee represented Fiegenbaum at the Jan. 14 hearing. He told Wolf that embezzlement cases, especially those within a small community, create a “ripple effect” that affects many people. He said adjudication of those matters required a balance between retribution and restitution to “make the community whole again.”

“I don’t think she’ll ever be able to forgive herself until she’s paid back every dime,” he said of Fiegenbaum.

Nisley asked Wolf to send the defendant to jail immediately after Monday’s hearing that began about 10:45 a.m. However, Wolf granted Calheim’s request that she be given the remainder of the day to say goodbye to family and friends before being incarcerated.

The judge said if she failed to report as promised, she would have to serve the 24 months in prison in addition to her year in jail.

“I’m not sure what happened but somewhere along the way you got off track,” he said.

Although Wolf’s wife, Leslie, is the chief deputy district attorney for Wasco County, he said neither the defense nor state had issues with him presiding over the hearing. Nisley said Leslie, who primarily handles crimes against women and children, did not have knowledge about the case and had not represented his office at past proceedings involving Fiegenbaum.

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