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A former cashier at Aviano Air Base, Italy, who pleaded guilty to stealing $412,000 from local businesses, was sentenced Friday to 15 months in prison. She also was ordered to pay $344,663 in restitution.

Nelia Szymczak, 45, of Wetumpka, Ala., worked as head cashier for the 31st Services Squadron from March 1998 until the money became missing in August 2000.

In December, she pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Montgomery, Ala., to failing to deposit money, removing or concealing records, falsifying or covering up evidence and making false accounting entries.

Szymczak collected money each day from the base’s bowling alley, golf course, officers and enlisted club, community center, child-care center and other businesses.

According to her plea bargain, she kept some of the money for herself and deposited a lesser amount in the bank.

She covered up the thefts using a “lapping” scheme, in which she replaced the missing cash with cash she received from later days’ deposits, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Matt Miner, who prosecuted the case.

Christopher Carney, deputy director of the 31st Services Squadron, said Szymczak got away with the thefts because there was a two-week gap between when she collected the cash and when it was deposited into a stateside bank, which gave her time to fudge the figures.

“She got caught when she went on leave,” Carney said. “We had to substitute a central cashier.” After the substitute cashier started making full, on-time deposits, the money gap was discovered, Carney said.

“We immediately brought in the [Office of Special Investigation] and Air Force Audit Agency,” Carney said.

The squadron has since changed its money-collecting and accounting procedures, Carney said.

Money is deposited directly into a local credit union that previously did not accept business accounts. Deposits are made daily instead of occasionally. An independent observer watches the counting and deposit of cash. The squadron, credit union and stateside Air Force Services accountants cross-check the receipts and deposits.

“Unless there’s collusion, there’s no way for that system to be broken,” Carney said.

The businesses that were robbed were nonappropriated fund businesses, that is, they are financially self-sufficient or received a minor amount of their funding from the Department of Defense.

Carney said the thefts did not impair services.

“The [theft] was relatively invisible to the community,” Carney said. “The money was for future requirements and not daily money needs.”

Miner said that Szymczak apologized to the court for stealing the money but did not offer an explanation as to why she did it.

The case took a long time to prosecute, Miner said, since there were questions over jurisdiction and because of the lengthy paper trail.

“There were a lot of receipts, a lot of auditing,” Miner said. “That’s what takes a long time in white-collar paper cases like this.”

Miner said that Szymczak still has the right to retract her plea-bargain agreement if she successfully appeals by June 23 that the U.S. court did not have jurisdiction over the incident, which occurred in Italy.

Otherwise, Miner said, Szymczak is scheduled to report to jail in 30 days.

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