A former constable from Beaver County bet taxpayers’ money that he could win a big jackpot. He didn’t, and the more than $1 million he gambled away cost the Ambridge Area School District new textbooks, technology upgrades and peoples’ jobs.
The theft also led to a school tax increase, Assistant U.S. Attorney Lee Karl said.
“This is a crime that impacted the community,” he said.
Keith Kristek, 57, of Baden pleaded guilty in June to one count each of mail fraud and filing a false tax return.
U.S. District Judge Arthur Schwab sentenced Kristek to three years and one month in prison and three years of probation. The judge also ordered him to pay $1 million in restitution to the school district and $46,000 to the borough.
Spokesmen for the district and borough couldn’t be reached for comment.
A career law enforcement officer who served in the Army and on the Baden and Sewickley Heights police departments, Kristek said his downfall was winning a small jackpot at a casino.
Convinced he could make money by gambling, he embarked on an eight-year spree funded by money he stole while collecting taxes for Baden and the school district.
“I always had this glimmer of hope that I would win that big jackpot, and I could pay it all back,” he said.
In addition to his military and police service, Kristek coached youth basketball for 20 years and was a regular community volunteer, said his attorney, Chad Bowers.
He asked Schwab to consider sentencing Kristek to a halfway house so Kristek could keep working to support his family and make some effort to pay back the stolen money.
After the hearing, Bowers said Kristek got caught in the “vicious downward cycle” of gambling addiction.
Schwab denied his request for leniency and ordered Kristek to complete a gambling addiction rehabilitation program as part of his probation. He also ordered Kristek to pay at least 10 percent of his gross monthly earnings as restitution after he is released from prison.
Kristek’s wife, Cynthia, was the elected tax collector for Baden but, because of personal financial problems, couldn’t get bonded in an amount required for the job. Keith Kristek stepped in and acted as her deputy tax collector from 2007 until his thefts were uncovered in 2015, prosecutors said.
When people paid their taxes in cash, Kristek simply pocketed the money. When they paid in checks, he forged signatures to cash them. Overall, he pocketed about $320,000 in cash payments and $740,000 in check payments, Karl said.
The investigation started when people who had paid their taxes received delinquency notices because Kristek hadn’t recorded their payments in the tax records.
In fact, he made such a shamble of the records that the borough has spent “a tremendous amount of time, effort and money” to partially restore them, Karl said.
Baden plans to collect about $905,800 in property taxes this year. The school district collects about $2.5 million annually in property taxes from Baden residents and $18.7 million from the district as a whole, which includes the municipalities of Ambridge, Economy, Harmony and South Heights.
Brian Bowling is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-325-4301 or [email protected].