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Woman embezzled $270,000 from law firm

A woman who managed the payroll for a Spokane law firm is headed to prison after embezzling $270,000 to feed her prescription painkiller habit.

Dawn L. Balzert, 44, cried as she explained to U.S. District Court Judge Justin Quackenbush how her addiction to OxyContin got so out of hand that she was at one point illegally buying the powerful painkiller on the street with money she stole from her employer, the law firm of Lukins & Annis. She initially was prescribed OxyContin by her physician following a surgical procedure.

“I am truly sorry for my behavior,” Balzert, who has no prior criminal record, told Quackenbush. “I disappointed a lot of people, including myself. If I could take it all back, I would.”

Her attorney, Doug Phelps, told the judge that his client’s problems started in 2008 when she was first given the OxyContin prescription. Soon after, according to court records, Balzert falsified payroll records to the company that issued the company checks. As a result, she was able to essentially overpay herself.

The amounts started out modest, beginning in late 2008. Balzert initially began overpaying herself about $4,000 a month.

But after nine months, she boosted it to about $6,000 and then it doubled from there. The most she overpaid herself was a total of $55,000 in June 2011, according to her indictment for 32 felony counts of wire fraud.

On Friday, she agreed to plead guilty to three counts. Under sentencing guidelines, she faced between 27 to 33 months in prison, but Quackenbush sentenced her to 18 months. He also ordered her to eventually pay back $291,000 in restitution.

“It’s not that you just got hooked, but it also appears you were out living the high life,” he said. “Once you found yourself addicted, why didn’t you go back (to the doctor) and say ‘I’m addicted to these damn things’? You even got to the point you were buying them off the street.”

Quackenbush then softened his tone, noting that Balzert had been a law-abiding, productive person until she started embezzling the payroll funds in 2008.

“I’m sure you are aware working in a law firm that in cases like this there must be an appropriate punishment. It’s designed to be a deterrent to you … but also to other people in positions of trust who may steal from their employers.”

Once the scheme was uncovered, Balzert “was forthcoming from the beginning and accepted responsibility,” her defense attorney said.

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