Ex-Hanford worker gets 20 months in prison

YAKIMA - Former Hanford worker Suzie Zuniga was sentenced to one year and eight months in prison Thursday after admitting she charged about $564,000 for personal goods to a federal credit card.

She also will be required to pay back the money at a rate of 10 percent of her monthly income, ruled Judge Rosanna Malouf Peterson in Eastern Washington District Federal Court in Yakima.

The prison sentence was less than the standard sentencing range of 27 to 33 months.

Her attorney had asked for a sentence of just one year and four months in prison for the fraud, saying that Zuniga, a single mother, had faced significant hardship in her life, including a knife attack by her ex-husband.

Zuniga, 47, pleaded guilty to 15 counts of wire fraud that happened between October 2004 and July 2008 when she worked as a materials coordinator for former contractor Fluor Hanford. She was responsible for buying materials for Hanford's Plutonium Finishing Plant.

A former Hanford driver, Pedro Alvarado Jr., who also pleaded guilty to fraud, said he took items to her home in Prosser including a stove, refrigerator, microwave oven and several TVs. He also received items she bought with the federal credit card.

Tommy Honeycutt, a former Hanford worker who had a romantic relationship with Zuniga, said she bought him numerous items, including a lawnmower, pressure washer, rototiller, air compressor, iPod, camera, power tools and two generators.

"Suzie Zuniga made one major mistake in life and this is it," said her attorney, Rick Hoffman.

Zuniga married at 18 and had five sons, but filed for divorce when her husband abused her and the children, who are now adults, Hoffman said. After the divorce, her husband stalked her and in 1995 stabbed her 17 times, almost killing her, Hoffman said.

He was sent to prison, and she raised their children without his financial support, her attorney said.

She had little education and filed for bankruptcy, but eventually was hired at Hanford, according to court documents.

At Hanford she saw "a lot of waste, a lot of excesses," Hoffman said. Security and controls were lax, he said.

Before she was tempted to use the credit card -- called a purchase card or P-card at Hanford -- for herself and her family, she had no criminal history, her attorney said.

"She regrets what she did every single day," he said. "It won't happen again."

Zuniga declined to speak during the sentencing hearing.

However, two of her sons submitted letters to the court.

"Although it was very hard for my mother to raise us, she guided me into the right direction," wrote her son, Ricardo Zuniga Huizar. "My mother always taught me to be respectful, well mannered, thankful and to stay ambitious."

"I know it was very rough and hard on my mother doing what she had to do to raise us," wrote her son, Elias Huizar. "My mother is a kind and loving person, but was just put in a hard situation trying to make ends meet and was only trying to take care of her boys."

The judge agreed that Zuniga had come through "very unfortunate circumstances" and had been a positive influence on her sons.

But she misused the federal credit cards over at least four years, the judge said.

"You had plenty of time to think this through," she said.

Peterson also said she was concerned that Zuniga had violated the trust of the public by committing fraud with federal money. In addition, Zuniga had dragged other people into the fraud, she said.

Peterson's goal was to give a sentence that was a serious penalty but still would give Zuniga hope, the judge said. As a felon she will face the loss of respect and opportunity, and repaying the money will be difficult, the judge said.

Zuniga should use the time in prison to figure out why she committed fraud and if she has festering sores from the problems she has faced, Peterson said.

"As odd as it seems, I hope this will be a time of healing," the judge said.

She ordered a mental health evaluation, after Hoffman said Zuniga might have symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder.

Zuniga also must pay a $1,500 special assessment and will have three years of probation.

She is one of seven people charged with fraud this spring related to use of Hanford federal credit cards and one of five to plead guilty. She is the first to be sentenced.