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No jail time for school official who embezzled taxpayer money

6:07 PM, Nov 18, 2010   |    comments
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The exact amount Atwood stole isn't known and probably never will be known. The best estimate is at least $190,000, money stolen from student funds, gate receipts from athletic events and taxpayer money.

On Thursday, Atwood stood in a courtroom with two other men who grew up in the Thornton area and went through the school system: Adams 12 superintendent Chris Gdowski and Adams County District Court Judge Chris Melonakis.

"It's terribly sad, Mr. Atwood, to see someone who has come as far as you have to disgrace yourself," Melonakis said. "It's a terrible failure on your part."

Prosecutors requested jail time for the felony embezzlement charge Atwood pled guilty to earlier this year.

Melonakis instead chose seven years of probation and 90 days of work release for Atwood, but not until after he castigated him for failing to be a good role model.

Melonakis said he would set aside his own personal feelings of disappointment to reach the sentence, yet he pointed to himself and Superintendent Gdowski as products of the school district living up to their responsibility to be role models.

"We owe it to them to do something more than what you've done in this case," Melonakis told Atwood.

"Many of us have overcome really tough circumstances and now see ourselves as important role models in the district and Steve's compromised that," Gdowski said.

Atwood has paid $20,000 restitution and may be ordered to pay more after an upcoming restitution hearing.

"I can't express how sorry I am for the selfish behavior I exhibited in the past," Atwood told the court.

Leaving court, Atwood and his attorney declined to comment further.

Gdowski said Atwood's actions had done "substantial damage" to the community's trust in Adams 12, a breach he said will take "a very, very long time to redeem and rebuild."

The superintendent outlined what that means in practical terms.

"You'll hear from comments from kids as they go door to door fundraising, saying, hey can you please buy some cookies or some pretzels because our athletic director stole a bunch of money from the district. We get e-mails and phone calls from people saying we dont know if we want to do a fundraiser, do we really trust that the money is going to go to the kids? Those kind of comments come in fairly often," Gdowski said.

"We're going to work very hard to rebuild the public trust in our district," Gdoswki said.

Atwood, 40, spent 18 years working for his alma mater, including five years as athletic director.

In that position, prosecutors said, Atwood enriched himself by pocketing revenues from ticket sales and concessions.

The thefts were discovered when Adams 12 brought on an internal auditor. Atwood resigned in 2009 when confronted about the missing money.

The school's internal audit found suspiciously low attendance numbers and subsequently, less revenue from sporting events. The audit only examined financial figures from the 2008-2009 school year.

That year, Atwood reported 481 paid admissions for a Legacy High School football game against Poudre High School, according to court documents. That raised red flags because a similar game drew 2,117 paid admissions.

Court documents outlined a string of brazen theft techniques by Atwood, including removing the large bills from concession stand cash registers claiming it was being done for security purposes.

Prosecutors were told by Atwood's ex-wife that she once found $10,000 of school money in a bag stuffed between a cabinet and a wall. She invited investigators to visit Atwood's home, claiming they would find a flat-screen TV that should have been installed at the Adams 12 sports stadium.

As a condition of his plea deal, Atwood can never again work for a public school.

(KUSA-TV © 2010 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)

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