Santa Rosa bookkeeper arrested in $262,000 embezzlement case

A 36-year-old bookkeeper was arrested by Petaluma police Thursday on suspicion of embezzling $262,000 from two clients.

Charity D. Howder of Santa Rosa was taken into custody during a traffic stop at Tachevah Drive and Neotomas Avenue in Santa Rosa at 2 p.m., Lt. Tim Lyons said. She was being held on $100,000 bail at the Sonoma County Jail.

Howder's arrest is the latest in a two-year run of embezzlement cases that collectively represent losses of at least $3 million from Sonoma County companies and organizations through accounting techniques and surreptitious bank withdrawals.

Two of Howder's clients jointly contacted Petaluma police in September 2011 to report they suspected she had been withdrawing thousands of dollars from their personal and business accounts, Lyons said.

The clients were Petaluma firm Project Management Practice Inc. and the family law practice of Charlotte Creaghan in Rohnert Park.

"The actions of Mrs. Howder have been shocking to us all, devastating on many levels, and frankly unbelievable for somebody we trusted so much," said Robert Happy, president and CEO of Project Management Practice Inc., in an email.

Investigators saw what they allege is a complicated fraud in which Howder used "accounting techniques to hide the expenditures," Lyons said.

A forensic accountant was contracted to analyze the evidence.

The unauthorized expenditures started small and quickly grew to an average of $2,000 to $4,000, Lyons said. They started in 2005 when Howder began doing the books for both companies and ended in September 2011 after the companies confronted her, Lyons said.

Howder remains under investigation for additional cases of theft from other clients, Lyons said.

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