A state circuit judge is giving a former Lehua Elementary School employee who admitted stealing more than $13,000 of school funds the opportunity to clear her criminal record of theft and forgery charges.
Janel Echiberi, 35, had pleaded guilty to second-degree forgery and second-degree theft for using the school’s Sam’s Club credit card from 2004 to 2008 to purchase tires for her car, a king-size bed, a high-definition television, a digital camera, clothing, prescription contact lenses, food and alcohol including one purchase for poke and beer.
She pleaded guilty to another second-degree theft charge for putting her name on the school’s payroll as a tutor and receiving three months of compensation even though she was not a tutor.
Over the objections of the prosecutor and school principal, Circuit Judge Richard Perkins yesterday granted Echiberi’s request for a deferral of her guilty pleas.
If she stays out of trouble for the next five years, the court will dismiss the charges. During that time, she must perform 450 hours of community service and write a letter of apology to the school. She recently completed paying back the money she stole.
"To say that I’m sorry sounds so weak," Echiberi said. "It was a very dark period for my family."
Her lawyer said during the four years she stole from the school Echiberi was having to care for her terminally ill mother, who eventually died, her husband was facing losing his job, she gave birth to her third child and she was diagnosed with clinical depression.
Deputy State Attorney General Christopher Young had recommended Echiberi serve five years of probation and pay a fine equal to the amount of money she stole "to (impress) on this defendant that taking of the money was not merely a loan but that it was a criminal act."
Fay Toyama said 2004 was her first year as principal at Lehua Elementary and she relied on Echiberi, who was the school’s special administrative services assistant.
"Janel was trusted by the entire staff to complete her duties as a SASA. But for the past several years she manipulated the system."
The money Echiberi stole was not state funds but money the school collected from fundraisers and donations. As a result of Echiberi’s theft, Toyama said, the school had less money for programs that reward students for positive behavior and for enrichment activities like having the Hawaii Opera Theater visit the school.