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From Fast Track To Dead End Rising Hotel Exec Had It All But Decided She Wanted More

TUESDAY, JUNE 27, 1995

Two years ago, Jean Chamberlain’s career was going “straight up.”

She was general manager of two Cavanaugh’s hotels. She trained employees throughout the chain. She belonged to a core group of top corporate executives.

She was none of that Monday - just a humble thief appearing before a judge.

Chamberlain pleaded guilty to first-degree theft in Spokane County Superior Court, admitting she had skimmed more than $28,000 in cash over four years from the Spokane-based hotel chain.

Actual losses may be three times that amount, authorities said.

Chamberlain’s brief remarks in court shed little light on motives behind the embezzlement.

“I’m not here to make any excuses at all,” she said. “I want to move on with my life. … I’m a good person; I know I can do a lot of good out there in the world - still.”

The 40-year-old mother of two won’t spend a day in jail under a plea bargain recommended by lawyers and adopted by Judge Harold Clarke.

The deal calls for 240 hours of community-service work and 30 days of electronic house arrest.

Over 10 years, however, she must pay $48,000 in restitution, including the company’s hefty auditing costs.

Chamberlain made a $20,000 payment Monday, draining savings and retirement accounts, according to her lawyer, Dan Short.

The cash-skimming scheme was exposed in September 1993, when a Cavanaugh’s advertising employee began asking why a $2,000 check hadn’t been deposited.

“It was a fluke deal,” said Linda Brown, internal auditor for Goodale & Barbieri Cos., which owns the Northwest hotel chain.

Brown did some financial sleuthing and the trail quickly led to Chamberlain, general manager of River Inn and Cavanaugh’s Fourth Avenue.

One peek inside Chamberlain’s desk triggered alarms: There were piles of checks payable to the hotel - some up to 90 days old but deliberately kept out of the bank.

Her scheme worked this way:

Chamberlain would take daily receipts from the hotels and skim off a certain amount of cash. She would then “replace” the stolen cash with an equal value in checks payable to the hotel.

The trick, Brown said, was holding onto checks that nobody in the company expected, such as refunds for equipment trade-ins or insurance payments.

To be safe, Chamberlain kept the checks in her desk for days or weeks. If somebody inquired about the missing money, she would produce the check, claiming it had been misplaced.

Brown’s investigation documented 31 separate thefts dating back to July 1989, when Chamberlain was promoted to general manager. Before then, she ran a company hotel in Moscow, Idaho.

The 12-year employee was fired after the evidence of embezzlement was discovered.

“I was devastated,” said Don Barbieri, G&B; president and chief executive officer.

While the betrayal stings, Barbieri said he worries more about sending the right message to his 1,300 employees, many of whom were mentored by Chamberlain.

“This isn’t the way business runs, and this isn’t the way society runs,” he said. “We need to call an injustice an injustice.”

Barbieri went to court to say those words. He also hoped to learn why Chamberlain was driven to steal, despite an annual salary and bonuses in excess of $60,000.

“The sky was the limit for her,” Brown said. “She would have done nothing but go straight up.”

Deputy Prosecutor John Grasso said the case is surprising because it involves a top company official.

“Usually, when they get to that high of a position, they can be trusted,” he said.

Why did she do it?

Short could only offer broad hints. He made vague references to marital problems, financial pressures, difficulties in raising two kids ….

Chamberlain has since remarried, changed her name to Jean Sotka and moved to a small West Side town. Currently unemployed, she had no prior criminal record.

After handing down the sentence, the judge looked closely at the college-educated woman with the flowing brown hair. Some thieves, even the white-collar variety, go to prison, he warned.

“You should be thankful that Mr. Barbieri is not seeking revenge.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

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