The former controller of Hotel Laguna faces a maximum term of four years in state prison at a sentencing hearing scheduled for May 6 after she entered a guilty plea to a single charge of felony embezzlement.
Cydney Ann Ruano, 51, of Laguna Niguel, was formally accused of siphoning more than $100,000 over several years from her employer’s account by falsifying deposit slips and issuing herself extra paychecks. After initially entering a not guilty plea after her arrest in 2009, Ruano changed her plea on March 18, just days before a jury trial was finally scheduled to begin in Orange County Superior Court and more than two years after the hotel’s owner received dunning notices and unraveled the losses.
Once hotel owner Claes Andersen received delinquency notices from state and federal tax authorities over unpaid sales and unemployment taxes he ordered an independent audit of the hotel’s finances for the three previous years. The results concluded that $102,498 was missing, according to court records.
“He was betrayed,” said Georgia Andersen, who succeeded her husband as president of the hotel after his death last year due to lung cancer. “She had been embezzling for years but she ramped it up after his diagnosis when she knew he wasn’t at the top of his game.”
Ruano, a 23-year employee who handled all the hotel’s finances, initially told Andersen she forgot to pay the tax bills, citing a lack of help, according to police Officer Glenn Mendoza’s report included in the court file. The Andersens own initial internal investigation reconciling bank statements and deposit slips dating back to Ruano’s promotion in 2004 turned up $81,953 in discrepancies as well as three unauthorized paychecks Ruano issued to herself, court records say.
Ruano was fired shortly after the audit was concluded and the findings turned over to authorities.
More than nine months later, in July 2009, Ruano admitted to police she took hotel cash and used it to pay her bills and that she wanted to make restitution, says Det. Zach Martinez’ report. She was arrested a week later and was released on her own recognizance after entering a not guilty plea. Her attorney, Gary M. Pohlson, of Laguna Hills, has failed to return several phone calls seeking comment. Calls to Ruano’s home also went unreturned this week.
Restitution in the amount of $200,000, to cover the hotel’s costs as well as penalties, will be discussed during Ruano’s sentencing hearing, said Farrah Emami, a spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office. A restitution hearing would be set at the judge’s discretion, she said.
Ruano’s theft led to the firing of 22 employees as the hotel had to make up unpaid tax losses even as the recession was hurting business and Claes Andersen’s cancer was progressing. “Everything happened at once,” said Mrs. Andersen, who intends to testify at Ruano’s sentencing hearing about the defendant’s disloyalty. “She was part of the family. She had a key to my house. She threw a baby shower for me.”
Andersen scoffs at the notion of Ruano making restitution. “It’ll never happen. She doesn’t have a job. I’d like her to pay the price or she’s going to ingratiate herself in someone else’s family. We were very disappointed in her,” she said, adding that her husband felt responsible for not uncovering the theft.
Ownership of the historic hotel, now undergoing room renovations and flood repair, was never at risk due to the tax delinquencies, according to general manager Michelle Wheeler. As a result of the embezzlement, though, three people, including Andersen’s widow, are now involved in monitoring the hotel’s daily receipts, Wheeler said.
Asked if Andersen perhaps overlooked warning signs in a longtime employee, Wheeler said, “It’s not that Mr. Andersen was negligent. Anything he would look at was falsified.”