OPEN………Bob Vukanovich

The Republic | 12:34 p.m. MST September 19, 2014

A former Surprise employee who managed city finances could face criminal charges after officials said she mishandled funds.

The city fired Estella Sanchez, who worked as the revenue and utility billing manager, in March after officials determined she violated policy by cashing a $3,000 check for petty cash and held it for three weeks before returning it.

City Manager Bob Wingenroth said he could not comment on the specifics of the incident because Surprise police have opened an investigation to determine whether Sanchez has broken any laws.

Surprise police confirmed that they are investigating Sanchez but would not comment on the case.

The criminal investigation is running concurrently with an internal audit, which officials said should uncover any financial discrepancies.

Sanchez had worked for Surprise for nearly 17 years. Her annual salary was about $91,000. A woman who identified herself as both Estella Sanchez and a former Surprise employee said she had no comment when contacted by The Arizona Republic. She then said the reporter had the wrong phone number.

If the investigation finds that money is missing, insurance will cover the funds, Wingenroth said.

“We want to do a good and thorough job with the investigation because this is very serious,” he said. “We will prosecute to the fullest extent of the law based on our findings.”

Since the firing, Wingenroth said, he has eliminated petty-cash accounts and hired a new revenue manager. The City Council also has funded an additional position to beef up internal controls, he said.

Surprise spokeswoman Diane Arthur said petty cash was a way for employees to request money to cover unexpected work-related expenses, such as parking at a work-related meeting or conference. “Traditionally, there was not that much money kept in petty cash, because it covered small, unexpected expenses,” she said.

City officials became aware of the incident during an unannounced cash-handling audit, which the city conducts periodically.

Internal Auditor Ramon Ramirez said in a separate memo to top city officials that Sanchez’s actions “put the city at considerable risk of not properly safeguarding cash.”

According to city documents, on Feb. 14, Sanchez, who had check-cashing authority, cashed a $3,000 check intended for petty cash.

Thirteen days later, Sanchez returned $1,900 to the city. She did not mention the remaining balance, which she still possessed, the documents said. The next day, officials asked Sanchez about the remaining money, and she did not respond.

Former City Manager Chris Hillman put Sanchez on paid administrative leave.

Wingenroth said that the city immediately contacted the Police Department and that Sanchez “has not been back to work, has had no access to (the city’s internal) Internetor city buildings and has been advised not to talk to city employees.”

She returned the remainder of the money, plus $2, on March 6.

Last year, Sanchez took away a colleague’s check-cashing responsibility and stopped recording how much she requested to replenish petty cash, which “obscured insight into the propriety of finance’s petty cash requests and balances,” according to city documents