Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Embezzlement Yields a Year behind Bars in Virginia


They say a poor excuse is better than none, but in Eun Tae Lee’s case, it wasn’t helpful, at all. He told his attorney he was being blackmailed by a former lover so, to meet her demands, he stole nearly half a million dollars from an organization dedicated to helping the world’s poor.

So although the state sentencing guidelines for his three counts of embezzlement recommended probation, the judge tasked with punishing the Penderbrook man last week exceeded the guidelines and sentenced him to a year in jail. Lee, 51, of the 12100 block of Wedgeway Court in Fair Oaks, must also make full restitution to the victim, SEED International.

"The defendant stole $471,766 from a nonprofit, missionary organization that supports missionaries around the world," said Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Sean Morgan, on Thursday, June 30, in Loudoun County Circuit Court. "The theft of this money had a great impact on their ability to conduct their affairs."

Although authorities initially believed Lee embezzled more than $700,000, Morgan said the figure he gave the court was the actual amount. And in a March 30, 2010 affidavit for a warrant to search Lee’s home for possible evidence, Deputy Charles Perinis, an investigator with the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office, explained the case against Lee.

According to the affidavit, on March 26, 2010, members of SEED International, a faith-based, nonprofit in Sterling, reported the theft by Lee, their former financial officer. They told Perinis that Lee perpetrated the crime by gaining control of the church’s bank accounts and writing checks from these accounts to individual accounts he’d established in his own name.

The deputy wrote that Lee then used this money "to support a lavish lifestyle that included his residence on Wedgeway Court, the rent for [a particular] apartment at in Annandale, the purchase of a 2006 Porsche Cayenne [SUV] and his personal living expenses."

Furthermore, wrote Perinis, when members of SEED International asked Lee about the missing money, he "produced counterfeit financial documents and bank statements to show a falsified investment of the church’s funds." The deputy noted that, upon questioning, a bank representative confirmed that the bank letters and statements "were, in fact, counterfeit."

SEED International assists missionaries from a Sterling-based church with funding. The group’s stated goal is "to provide humanitarian aid and services to the poorest of the poor in the developing world, especially in the areas of Survival, Education, and Economic Development" (SEED).

Lee turned himself in to the Loudoun Sheriff’s Office on April 15, 2010, and was charged with 16 counts of embezzlement. Then on July 12 of that year, the Loudoun County grand jury indicted him on every count.

He pleaded guilty March 4 to three counts of embezzlement and, in exchange, the other 13 counts were dropped. He then returned to Circuit Court on June 30 for sentencing before Judge Thomas Horne.

At the outset, defense attorney Jay Myerson gave prosecutor Morgan a check for $1,200 from Lee toward his restitution. Morgan then presented it to a pastor from SEED.

"This defendant should receive a long period of incarceration," said Morgan. "And he should pay at least $2,000/month, or 50 percent of his monthly income, in the future, toward his restitution. Noting that Lee had given him a statement of his personal assets, liabilities and expenses, Morgan said Lee could pay this amount if he changed his lifestyle.

"There’s a $900/month credit-card payment, but this should go to restitution before paying off this debt," said the prosecutor. "There’s only [Lee] and his wife, but they’re spending $700/month on groceries and gas. This should be $400, with the other $300 going toward restitution."

Although Lee stated that he pays $500/month for utilities, Morgan said that, if the Penderbrook man has more than basic cable and phone service, this amount, too, could be reduced. "He reports a $1,200 monthly income. He should be required to pay half of this amount per month," said Morgan. "And he could probably find a less-expensive, living situation."

Morgan was adamant, he told the judge, because "The charges against Lee have been pending since April 2010 and, until he came in with that $1,200 today, he hadn’t paid one, red cent in restitution. His statement of assets shows more concern about himself than about SEED."

"Like many people who steal, he places his own wants above the needs of others," said Morgan. "He just doesn’t get it. If the defendant was really remorseful, he’d give a full statement of where he transferred this money, how and to whom, but he hasn’t told us."

Furthermore, said Morgan, "The defendant said his affair predated this 18-month-long embezzlement, but he was using SEED money to pay for her apartment. He purchased a Porsche Cayenne, which has not been recovered, and a vehicle from a Land Rover Jaguar dealer. He used these checks for himself." Because of all these factors, as well as Lee’s "attempts to cover his tracks," Morgan said he deserved 12 months incarceration, plus a "lengthy term" of suspended time to make sure he pays his restitution.

Instead of calling witnesses to testify on his client’s behalf, Myerson proffered their statements to the court. A Mrs. Park of Fairfax knew Lee through her church worship group and said he did volunteer work for her company.

Jae Kim of Pennsylvania called Lee "fundamentally, a good man who’s done many good deeds," and Mrs. Kim spoke of the work Lee did at the Antioch School in Pennsylvania and the awards he received. A Mr. Yoon of Korean Central Presbyterian Church (KCPC) noted Lee’s work in the church’s counseling department.

Myerson told Judge Horne that all these things "reflect the full measure of this man’s life, not just the deeds before you today."

Lee’s wife, who was in Korea for a sick relative’s operation, wrote in an affidavit, "I don’t know what I’ll do if [my husband’s] in jail." She also said he’d done charitable work and had helped many people."

"He’s been married over 21 years and has no criminal record," said Myerson. "He’s never before been in trouble. [In addition], five friends each pledged to pay $100,000 to the church toward the restitution because they believe the whole ledger of his life should be taken into account, and they’ve been making payments."

Regarding any personal gain Lee received from the embezzlement, Myerson said, "This is a man in dire distress. His home is underwater, he has considerable debt and he didn’t use the money toward his expenses. Utilities and gas aren’t discretionary [expenses]. He could pay 25 percent of his gross income, but he only makes $1,200/month in a dry cleaners. His wife is supporting him now; any [higher payment] would be punishing her."

Myerson then explained that Lee had an affair in 2003. "When he saw [the woman] years later in church, she blackmailed him," said the attorney. "She said she’d confront his wife if he didn’t give her assistance. At some point, he wanted to stop. But by then, he was in too deep. He tried to get back the money from her, but she hired an attorney and my client didn’t have the money to fight her."

Requesting probation for Lee, Myerson said, "He’s demonstrated genuine remorse. He’s apologized to SEED and tried to raise the money; unfortunately, it’s not there to be raised."

Lee then stood and expressed "deep regret" for his actions. "In the past 14 months, I have had time for reflection," he said. "I fully recognize what I did was terribly wrong, even though I didn’t keep the money for myself." Crying, he said, "I apologize to SEED, KCPC and my wife and family for the pain I’ve caused [them]."

"I’ll take this as an opportunity to be a better human being, and I will repay the money," added Lee. "I have worked to improve the community all my life and will continue to do so. I ask you, from the bottom of my heart, for mercy so I can be with my wife and pay restitution."

However, the judge just couldn’t ignore Lee’s behavior. "Embezzlement is a violation of a special trust someone placed in another to take care of their property," he explained. Horne also compared Lee’s case to some similar ones he’s sentenced.

In a case many years ago, he said, a woman embezzled money from the DMV to help her husband with terminal cancer. "That explanation draws on a judge’s humanity," said Horne. Yet another woman had embezzled PTA funds earmarked for children’s activities.

"The children had worked hard to raise the money, and she’d preyed upon their good works, and [your] case is like that," the judge told Lee. "You embezzled from a charity. This money was to be used for good works, but it was just used for somebody’s pleasure, even if you were being blackmailed."

Horne then imposed a sentence that would punish Lee for his crime while placing him in a position to pay back the money he owes. He sentenced Lee to 10 years in prison for each of his three counts of embezzlement and ran the sentences consecutively, for 30 years total.

"That ought to be a beacon sign that the court takes this offense very seriously," said the judge. He then suspended all but 12 months and placed Lee on three years probation when his incarceration is completed.

Horne also ordered Lee to pay $471,766 restitution to SEED at a rate of $2,000/month, or half his gross income. "The court will authorize work release, if approved [by the county sheriff]," he said. "And community service can go toward paying your court costs. The court deviated upward from the sentencing guidelines, given the nature of your offense."

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