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Riverside County employees charged with stealing child-care funds

December 3, 2010 |  1:29 pm

Two Riverside County Office of Education employees and five other individuals allegedly involved in a scheme to siphon off more than $500,000 in child-care funds were charged with embezzlement, grand theft and fraud, authorities said Friday.

Riverside County Dist. Atty. Rod Pacheco said the scheme largely was orchestrated by Stephanie Luna Vega, 38, a child-care liaison with the county education agency who allegedly has been illicitly collecting the government funds since 2001.

Between 2001 and 2009, Pacheco said, Vega and the others doctored paperwork to create fake child-care providers and children, diverting state and federal funds to relatives and personal accounts.

Both Vega and school agency employee Esmeralda Garcia Martinez, 37, had the authority to approve and issue checks for the Office of Education child-care program. The program is designed for low-income families and has a lengthy waiting list. Because of the alleged fraud, Pacheco said, some eligible families were unable to receive government assistance to place their children in day care.

The alleged fraud came to light in 2009 when Vega's husband discovered the scheme during the couple's divorce, Pacheco said. He found a bag in their closet with $3,000 and documents containing slight alterations of his name, the district attorney said, and alerted family members, who in turn reported the findings to the Office of Education.

Four of Vega's relatives also were charged with being involved in the alleged scheme: her mother, Sylvia Avila, 61, of San Bernardino; her father, Alberto Lobato Luna, 61, of Riverside; her stepmother, Camilla Wright Luna, 61, of Riverside; and her sister-in-law, Toni Catherine Luna, 39, of Riverside.

Also charged was Brenda Acosta, 31, of Lake Elsinore.

Vega alone illicitly collected $527,940, taking $62,000 to place her son in day care and diverting the remainder to other accounts, officials said.

-- Phil Willon in Riverside