Former Santa Cruz sheriff referred for criminal charges for misusing public funds, forgery

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Former Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada and one of his captains might face criminal charges for misusing public money and ordering sheriff’s office employees to forge timesheets so they could claim pay for unworked overtime over the course of two decades.

The Arizona Auditor General discovered that Estrada and the unnamed former captain illicitly authorized $196,842 of unearned overtime pay for 77 employees between 2013 and 2018. The employees were directed to add overtime to their timesheets whenever they did special duties that were considered beyond their pay grade, like “employees performing as a field training officer, communications training officer, lead officer, or lieutenant,” the audit found.

The Auditor General’s Office forwarded its findings to the Attorney General’s Office for a criminal investigation related to misuse of public monies and solicitation of forgery.

The audit was requested by Santa Cruz County officials after they learned in 2018 that Estrada was paying unauthorized overtime to his employees. Even after the county manager told the sheriff’s office that the overtime payments were not approved and needed to halt immediately, the practice continued.

“The Sheriff is asking that we proceed as usual until he gives us other instructions,” the captain emailed to command staff the next day. 

That prompted the county manager to step in, and she notified the affected employees that they could no longer claim overtime pay for unworked hours. 

Although the audit only covered 2013-18, the auditors noted that Estrada had been allegedly ordering fraudulent overtime pay for much longer. 

“The (former) sheriff confirmed that his practice of providing employees additional compensation for special duties through unworked overtime began approximately 13 years earlier, in 2000,” the audit report states.

Laura Gómez
Reporter Laura Gómez Rodriguez covers state politics and immigration for the Arizona Mirror. She worked for The Arizona Republic and La Voz Arizona for four years, covering city government, economic development, immigration, politics and trade. In 2017, Laura traveled the length of the U.S.-Mexico border for “The Wall,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning project produced by The Arizona Republic and USA Today Network. She was named Best Investigative Reporter by Phoenix Magazine in its 2018 newspaper category and has been honored by the Arizona Press Club for Spanish-language news and feature reporting. She is a native of Bogotá, Colombia and lived in Puerto Rico and Boston before moving to Phoenix in 2014. Catch her researching travel deals, feasting on mariscos or playing soccer.