Sunday, February 2, 2014

Former teacher union official sentenced for embezzlement

Former union official Lisa Barrett wept as her sentence she was sentenced Friday, shoulders heaving deeply as she learned a judge’s mercy still meant she will spend a year of her life in prison.

“I had planned to give you more time,” U.S. District Court Judge James Munley told Barrett, 48, of Shavertown, the former president of the Wyoming Area Teachers Union who pleaded guilty in October to embezzling nearly $60,000 using union debit and credit cards to support a lifestyle of shopping, travelling and dining.

The charges carry a maximum sentence of five years in prison, a $250,000 fine and three years’ probation. Munley sentenced Barrett to 12 months in prison, two years’ probation and $2,600 in fines and fees.

As Barrett sobbed, Munley told her written and verbal statements given by relatives, friends and colleagues about Barrett’s character factored into his decision.

Those supporters variously recalled a young woman who put herself through college after her father died, a sibling who cared for an ailing sister, the mother of a teenage son, and a suffering woman being treated for mental health issues.

“Looking at you, hearing the people here and considering all the people who hold you in high regard, I changed my mind and gave you a lesser sentence,” the judge said.

“I’ve also considered your son. I am aware of the fact that you and your former husband share custody,” the judge said.

Violated a trust

But Munley also made plain that Barrett had violated a position of trust, earning her a place among a catalogue of corrupt Northeastern Pennsylvania officials who have made headlines for all the wrong reasons, from judges and county commissioners to school board members and Little League officials.

“These are crimes. They are thefts. They are embezzlement,” Munley said. “You know, what I am concerned about is that we sent the right message so we discourage persons from abusing their positions of authority.”

Barrett, a high school career technology teacher, resigned her position as union president and requested a sabbatical from work in February at the same time Luzerne County District Attorney Stephanie Salavantis confirmed her office had agreed to look into reports of missing funds.

Barrett is no longer a teacher or a union member.

Her crimes occurred between 2007 and 2012, prosecutors said, describing purchases from department stores and restaurants, as well as on family trips to Virginia Beach, Va., and Ithaca and Cooperstown, N.Y.

$59,273 in restitution

She has paid $59,273 in restitution, defense attorney Christopher Powell said.

“I accept full responsibility for my actions,” Barrett told the judge. “In my quest to please everyone and gain acceptance, I became overwhelmed.”

Barrett, who has the right to appeal, according to Munley, did not speak to reporters after leaving court.

“You’d have to ask Judge Munley what he was trying to do, but to me, that sentence is severe enough to send a message,” Powell told reporters, adding that his client is “very upset.”

“I understand the sentence,” Powell said. He and Barrett had hoped for a lesser penalty, but acknowledged “it was within the guidelines.”

Current Wyoming Area Education Association President Melissa Dolman told the judge that the union accepted the restitution that has been made.

The judge pointed out Barrett may actually have taken as much as $90,000, according to early estimates, and that the amount recognized by investigators was all that could be documented because of union record-keeping. Dolman acknowledged the group “never had an audit done.”

“That’s not saying much for the union,” Munley retorted.

Dolman told the judge, and later reporters, that procedures have changed, and there is now an audit committee.

Barrett has until March 5 to surrender herself to federal custody. Officials did not say where she might be housed.

“I’m sorry, but you have to pay the consequences, you know?” Munley said, sighing before he spoke his final words to the trembling, sobbing Barrett.

“Good luck to you. That’s it.”

he sentence - one year in federal prison - shocked and devastated Lisa Barrett.

"Oh my God, what I am supposed to do?" Barrett screamed out, sobbing and clutching her sister, just after Friday morning's court hearing ended.

A former teacher for the Wyoming Area School District, Barrett had pleaded guilty to embezzling more than $59,000 from her union while serving as union president.

Barrett, 48, illegally used a union debit/credit card on various illegitimate purchases over six years to improve her "personal lifestyle," U.S. District Judge James M. Munley said, releasing new details on the embezzlement charges.

"I am sorry. You have to pay the consequences," Munley told Barrett, who must surrender to federal authorities by March 5.

Munley said he was "concerned about sending the right message" to anyone entrusted with access to public funds or funds for community and employee organizations.

According to the judge, Barrett illegally used the debit/credit card to make cash withdrawals for personal use; buy meals at local restaurants; make retail purchases at Lowe's, Dick's Sporting Goods, Target and Cape May Sandals; and fund trips with friends and family to Cooperstown, N.Y.; Ithaca, N.Y., and Virginia Beach, Va.

Barrett lives in Kingston Township and shares custody of her 13-year-old son with her ex-husband. She ignored the media when exiting the William J. Nealon Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Scranton.

She and her attorney, Christopher T. Powell Jr., were expecting a less-severe sentence because of her cooperation with authorities and willingness to pay $59,273 back to the union in restitution.

"You'd have to ask Judge Munley what he was trying to do, but to me, that sentence is severe enough to send a message," Powell said.

In court, Munley said he was planning to impose a more-severe sentence before he heard from Barrett and her brother in-law. When addressing the judge, Barrett apologized to union members and her family.

"I accept full responsibility," she added.

Last February, Barrett resigned as president of her union, the Wyoming Area Education Association, and took a leave as a career-technology teacher, citing "personal and medical reasons." The school board accepted Barrett's resignation as a district teacher at its Aug. 20 meeting.

Her salary as a teacher exceeded $74,000 a year. She started teaching for the district in 1996.

Barrett entered into a plea agreement with federal prosecutors in September, and did not reach an agreement on a sentence.

Also in September, Barrett submitted a request to the Public School Employees' Retirement System to obtain her pension-fund contributions over the years plus interest. The agency has not processed her application, agency spokeswoman Evelyn Tatkovski said.

According to Barrett's divorce settlement in 2010, her former husband agreed to pay her a sum of $600,000, waived his interest in their Kingston Township home, agreed to pay all mortgage bills and debts on the property and agreed to pay $1,300 a month in child support until their son become 18. The Kingston Township property has an assessed value of $444,700, records show.

Barrett started embezzling union funds in 2006, authorities said. The union and its parent organization, the Pennsylvania State Education Association, could not conduct a forensic audit to determine the exact amount of how much was embezzled because receipts were not available, the current union president, Melissa Dolman, told the judge in court.

The union has made procedural changes in reviewing expenditures to prevent officials from embezzling funds in the future, Dolman said. Union members have been working under an expired collective bargaining agreement since 2010 and went on strike this past September.

The strike interrupted four weeks of school and had to end to allow the completion of 180 school days by June 15. An arbitrator's decision to try to resolve the collective-bargaining dispute is expected this month.

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