CVUSD board member pleads not guilty to embezzlement charges

POSTED: 11:29 PM PDT Mar 27, 2013    UPDATED: 03:55 PM PDT Mar 28, 2013 
COACHELLA, Calif. -

A Coachella Valley Unified School District board member who worked for Farmers Insurance pleaded not guilty today to charges she kept more than $12,000 in cash that should have gone to her employer.

Juanita Delara Duarte, 61, who is charged with one felony count of grand theft, was ordered to return to court April 9 for a felony settlement hearing, and the judge reduced her bail from $60,000 to $12,700. She held up a piece of paper to hide her face at her arraignment this afternoon at the Larson Justice Center in Indio.

Duarte was arrested Wednesday at her home in Coachella.

John Hall of the Riverside County District Attorney's Office said the theft allegation was unrelated to her school board position.

Coachella Valley Unified School District Superintendent Darryl Adams released a statement saying he was "shocked and saddened" to hear about Duarte's arrest.

"I know that this news is disturbing to the Coachella Valley Unified School District community, so I want to confirm that this situation does not involve her work with our school district," Adams said. "I have known Ms. Duarte for the past three years, and during this time, I have seen her to be dedicated to our public schools and the children we serve. At this time, law enforcement is investigating the matter, and I believe that we all should reserve judgment and comments until the facts are gathered. When law enforcement has completed its work, the district will make decisions based on facts and the law."

In January 2011, a customer told Farmers Insurance that he made two cash payments to Duarte in February 2010 and September 2010, but never got full credit for his auto insurance payment, Hall said.

Farmers audited Duarte and found that, from December 2008 to February 2011, she "received cash payments from customers of more than $12,700, but those cash payments were never applied to customer policies or deposited into Farmers Insurance accounts," Hall said.

Farmers identified 32 of Duarte's clients who paid insurance premiums in cash, which was "never properly deposited into the company's accounts, nor did the customers receive credit for the payments," Hall said.

As of Wednesday, Duarte still hadn't deposited the payments into any Farmers accounts, Hall said.

"The investigation revealed that Duarte primarily targeted low-income, Spanish-speaking victims in the Mecca area of the Coachella Valley," Hall said.

Duarte had an office listed on Highway 111 in Indio.