White-collar criminals often avoid prison terms
Barbara Bateman padded her salary with $11,000 she took from Allegheny County employees.
Tammie Lazzara stole nearly $60,000 in fines from traffic tickets and citations from a North Hills judge's office.
Ira Johnson gambled away the $700,000 he stole from West Penn Allegheny Health System.
All three were prosecuted and convicted within the past three years. Each was ordered to pay back the money they stole. None saw the inside of a jail cell.
“White-collar criminals are rarely jailed,” said Jason D. Bartolacci, a Carlow University professor whose research focuses on fraud and nonviolent crimes. “Prosecutors really only look at white-collar crime as a property crime, so it gives the perception that there's not as much damage, when in fact the damages are often greater than a common street crime ... but the punishment is usually less.”
Legal experts said judges usually don't send white-collar criminals to jail because it's harder for them to repay money they stole from behind bars. By sentencing them to a period of probation, they can continue to work, pay off their obligation and become productive members of society, they said.
“If you put a guy in jail and he loses his job, you're compounding the problem,” said Bruce Antkowiak, criminal law professor at St. Vincent College in Latrobe.
“If we put everybody in jail who stole $25,000, we'd have more people in jail for that than we'd have for drugs,” said Jerome DeRiso, a Pittsburgh criminal defense attorney.
Legal observers and victims for years have decried the disparity of sentences for white-collar criminals versus others, Antkowiak said, although that has begun to change since a federal judge in 2009 sentenced Bernie Madoff to prison for 150 years for bilking nearly $65 billion from Wall Street investors.
“Just because the guy who did the stealing was wearing a $2,000 suit and contributed some of the money to some of the best charities in town doesn't make him any less a thief,” Antkowiak said.
Sentencing guidelines for charges such as theft and fraud rely on thresholds that depend on the amount of money stolen, but judges have some discretion to address particular circumstances, said Mark H. Bergstrom, executive director of the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing.
“This can be done by imposing aggravated or mitigated sentences, and/or by imposing multiple counts concurrently or consecutively,” Bergstrom said.
Lazzara, 38, of West View, the former secretary for McCandless District Judge William Wagner, was sentenced to six years of probation for thefts that took place from 2006 to 2008.
Bateman, 42, of Oakdale, a former payroll clerk for the Allegheny County Retirement Fund, was sentenced to the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition probation program, which entitles her to have her criminal record erased once she pays restitution. She gave herself bonuses between January 2012 and January 2013, records show.
Johnson, 53, of Penn Hills and the former financial services adviser for West Penn Allegheny, was sentenced to one to two years in alternative housing and five years of probation. His thefts happened from 2007 to 2011.
None returned calls.
Bartolacci, a former Washington police officer and fraud investigator for PNC Bank, said several problems remain with the perception of white-collar crimes: They are not taken as seriously as other crimes because they're not violent, and most offenders are treated as first-timers, even if their thefts persisted for years.
“For some people, they've been doing it for years before they get caught,” he said. “Hopefully, the future will hold more appropriate jail sentences.”
Adam Brandolph is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-391-0927 or firstname.lastname@example.org.