Don Keelan | Vermont's OPM addiction

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Judge David C. Norton may be a long way from Vermont when presiding as the U.S.District Court Judge, in Charleston, South Carolina. According to NewsObserver.com, the judge did not mince words when earlier this year he rendered a sentence in what was South Carolina's largest ever embezzlement case.

According to published reports by Jenny Peterson and others, Brantley Thomas, the former chief financial officer of the Berkeley County School District, spanning a 16-year period, stole over $1.2 million. Judge Norton sentenced Thomas to 63 months in federal prison and to make restitution of $1,232,106 to the BCSD.

The judge went on to note that Thomas, and others (who steal) have an OPM addiction—the taking of "Other People's Money." The state of South Carolina did not think anything less of Thomas's crime and placed an additional sentence of nearly five more years in prison. The 61-year-old Thomas will have a difficult time making restitution.

According to an on-line summary of Vermont criminal law, specifically, Title 13, Chapter 57 (larceny and embezzlement), the following is noted: "If the money or property embezzled exceeds $100 in value, the person shall be imprisoned not more than 10 years or fined not more than $10,000, or both." The statute might have just as well been adopted for the inhabitants on Mars for all its relevancy in Vermont. As I have noted in this column, the most lucrative way to make money in Vermont is to embezzle it. It is a truism today as it has been for years — the above noted statute is for the most part, ignored.

For many who engage or have engaged in embezzlement, it is an addiction and the courts should deal with those who have the addiction. Is full restitution, a long prison sentence and income tax recovery the proper way to deal with convicted embezzlers?

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Several recent Vermont cases are noteworthy. According to Ellie French's piece on Oct. 22 in VTDigger, "A former state tax examiner has pleaded guilty to embezzling just over $15,000 from the Vermont Department of taxes." The sentence handed out was not anywhere near the maximum 10 years in prison noted in the criminal statute, but 90 days of home confinement. I should note that the defendant's physical health (pregnancy) was a factor. There was no indication if income tax evasion charges were filed.

The recent guilty plea by the defendant in the Lyndonville $2.2 million embezzlement (which dwarfs the BCSD case in S.C.) comes up for sentencing in February 2020. Up to now the only restitution that has been made was the confiscation of some motor vehicles. This case had also spanned a long period of time, 10 years or more. The income taxes due on the ill gotten gains alone amount to over a quarter of a million dollars.

It is not my prerogative to interfere in what the federal court will decide what sentence to give the defendant in the Lyndonville theft. However, one thing is clear to me when it comes to the sentencing of those convicted of embezzlement in Vermont — it does not recognize the impact of the crime.

The embezzlement is committed quite frequently, especially against small municipalities, businesses and nonprofits. Past punishments don't come anywhere near what is in the statute. If embezzlement is determined to be an addiction, then let's deal with it as such. Vermont has been overwhelmed physically, emotionally and financially in having to deal with drug addition, alcohol and gambling addition (the latter is what most of the funds were used for in the Lyndonville case) and, most recently, video games addiction.

If Judge Norton is correct in his findings, that embezzlement is an addiction to stealing other peoples money, it needs to be addressed. Reporter Peterson goes on to note that Thomas, while awaiting sentencing in the BCSD theft, took a position with a Charleston eye vision center. He has been accused of stealing $37,655 from the center.

Don Keelan writes a regular column for the Journal.


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