Chris Ball hired Neilla Cenci as his bookkeeper in 2005. She was responsible for, among other things, all matters related to accounting, accounts receivable and financial record keeping for Ball Construction Management, Inc.
Cenci was one of only a handful of employees for the small Canyon Country business. Working in close quarters, Cenci was like every other worker: She smiled every day, always said, “Good morning,” was cordial and friendly, did her job and was, so Ball thought, loyal.
Thirteen years later, the Internal Revenue Service randomly audited Ball’s company seeking documentation for $37,755.48 in payments to a Discover credit card for tax year 2015. After receiving the 20 checks from the bank, Ball and his wife, Krissy, were shocked to see that Krissy’s signature had been forged. Krissy said she recognized Cenci’s handwriting.
“One safeguard we had was that only my wife and I could sign checks,” Chris Ball said. “The only way to get money from us is to commit a crime. I didn’t think my employees would commit a crime.”
Further investigation led the Balls to believe that this was just the tip of the iceberg, and they have filed a lawsuit against Cenci alleging she misappropriated, embezzled, converted and/or diverted $1,586,732.06 going back to 2006. They seek that amount, plus whatever punitive and exemplary damages and court costs the court would grant.
“She stole more than her net worth while she worked for us,” Chris Ball said. “She stole checks and forged our signatures.”
Cenci, 70, did not return phone calls seeking comment, but she was arrested Sept. 6 in connection with the $37,755.48 the IRS audit revealed. An arrest report from the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Department showed she was granted $20,000 bail. No charges stemming from that arrest have been filed, and Krissy Ball said friends have told her that Cenci has told people the Balls dropped the charges because it was a big misunderstanding.
The Balls have not forgotten.
“It’s been a range of emotions: shock, anger, embarrassment, frustration,” Krissy Ball said. “Knowing her and having been her friend, like a sister to me. It hurts.”
Chris Ball started his business, which supports attorneys who assist homeowners in suing builders for construction defects, 25 years ago. At its high point, Ball employed 20 people, but after the 2008 recession it shrunk to two inspectors and four office employees plus his wife.
According to Ball’s personal declaration, which he said he wrote to assist law enforcement, insurance companies and his attorneys, he hired Cenci Feb. 28, 2005, and she worked for Ball until her arrest. Typically, it was Cenci who collected and opened the mail, wrote checks, made bookkeeping entries, reviewed bank statements and reconciled the accounts using QuickBooks accounting software (Cenci was the only one who knew how to use QuickBooks).
Ball alleges Cenci embezzled money by presenting him with an invoice and company check to sign, then repeating the process with his wife. One check was mailed to the Ball’s Visa account or another merchant such as Home Depot, the other to a different account.
Ball also alleges that the way Cenci covered her tracks was to write checks printed from QuickBooks, usually with the last four digits of a payee’s account number in the memo field. After printing the checks, she would delete the last four digits in the memo field in QuickBooks. But the last four digits remained on the canceled check. The money would be deposited into various Cenci accounts. Ball alleges Cenci used between 31 and 40 different personal accounts.
To hide expenses, Ball alleges Cenci made bookkeeping entries for false expenses in multiple accounts so the entries would be small and precise, and the theft would be virtually undetectable in profit-and-loss statements.
“I would carefully review quarterly P&L and Balance Sheets, but I foolishly did not review bank statements or the check registers,” Ball wrote in his personal declaration.
It wasn’t until the IRS audit that Chris Ball suspected anything. He said he thought the money was in the bank.
“The money she stole basically represents the savings of 25 years of running my business,” he said. “We were betrayed.”
At first, Discover was of no help, but thanks to examining the 20 canceled company checks from Union Bank, coupled with the sheriff’s station pressuring Discover Financial Services to cooperate (Ball said he could never get Discover on the phone), the Balls learned that Cenci had deposited the $37,000-plus into her accounts.
In Chris Ball’s personal declaration, there is an example of a forged signature and Krissy Ball’s real signature. She said when she saw it, it was “like a punch to the gut.”
The same day Krissy confirmed to deputies that her signature had been forged, Cenci was arrested at work.
“I had to pretend nothing was going on,” Krissy Ball said. “She’s crazy. … She knows we know the full extent now. There’s no way around it.”
In the first 30 days following Cenci’s arrest, the Balls obtained online access to their accounts and discovered payments to Wells Fargo, Macy’s, Barclay’s, Best Buy and other accounts unknown to them. All told, they found 805 checks totaling almost $1.2 million. Most of that went into accounts at five banks or credit-card companies: Visa, Discover, Wells Fargo, Citibank and Bank of America.
In the next 30 days, they found another 200 checks totaling more than $300,000.
Since Cenci’s arrest, Krissy Ball has been documenting everything she could. These include bank statements, emails, attachments and computer junk files, and the Balls have hired a CPA to download everything from the computer Cenci used.
“It’s maddening. It’s been my obsession, and it’s killing me,” she said, “and it shouldn’t. I’m a grown woman. … My son is mad at me. This is all I do. I’ve got piles and piles of documents I want to go through. What other ways did she swindle us?”
Ball said Cenci has appeared in her dreams. In one, she’s helping Ball work on spreadsheets. In another, she blames Ball’s sister for the missing money (Chris Ball’s personal declaration said his sister-in-law has been helping with the documentation).
Also among the documentation are social media posts from the various vacations Cenci, her daughter and grandchildren have taken: Hawaii, Florida (twice), Las Vegas, Texas, Georgia and four cruises. Krissy Ball also has seen posts about the gifts the grandchildren have received. She’s convinced it’s the Ball’s money that is paying for all of this.
Although the Balls have not seen Cenci since her arrest, Krissy said she has friends who keep a lookout. Friends saw Cenci at a yard sale Nov. 3 and reported to her that “she looked awful, drugged on meds,” Krissy said. “She has her ailments.”
The next day, friends went to an open house at Cenci’s condo in Valencia (Krissy Ball also believes stolen money paid for the upgrades) and learned that not only was she trying to sell the home, she wanted to move out of state. That caused the Balls to quickly file a Notice of Pendency of Action on the property to stop the sale, meaning any prospective buyer must be notified that there is pending litigation against the property. Chris Ball said he did that “to maintain the status quo until a court can decide.” In the meantime, the home is off the market.
Chris Ball said he does not believe Cenci will ever be able to repay the $1.5 million. Her final salary was just shy of $63,000.
He declined to say what final outcome he seeks. His wife made it clear what she wants.
“I want to see her in prison,” she said. “I want to see her mug shot. I want that satisfaction.”