A former Seattle Public Utilities engineer was sentenced to 7 1/2 years in prison this afternoon for stealing more than $1 million in one of the largest cases of public embezzlement in King County.
Joseph Phan, 47, pleaded guilty in September to 67 counts of first-degree theft for depositing checks made out to the utility into his personal account. Prosecutors said that he used the money to purchase houses, rental properties and undeveloped lots.
King County prosecutors argued that the duration of the crime, Phan’s abuse of public trust and the amount of money involved warranted an exceptionally long sentence of 7 1/2 years.
Phan sobbed and apologized during his sentencing, saying he was “heartbroken” by what he had done.
Phan was a civil engineer hired in 1995 by Seattle Public Utilities, where he was responsible for issuing water-access certificates to property owners and developers and was trusted to accept payments, prosecutors said in charging documents.
According to prosecutors, Phan began to divert money from the utility at the beginning of 2008 when he opened an account naming himself and the “City of Sea” at Bank of America.
Over the next three years, he deposited 70 of the utility’s checks in his private account, prosecutors said. By the time he was caught, police and prosecutors say, he had stolen nearly $1.1 million.
He was fired after a 2010 audit of the utility’s financial controls discovered Phan and five other employees had improperly accessed and credited their own utility accounts. His larger deception was discovered when a developer called a Seattle Public Utilities supervisor to ask whether a previously paid deposit on a defunct project could be applied to a new development, but there was no record of the check in the city’s accounts, according to prosecutors.