Calling her crime "knowing and willful" a federal judge Tuesday sentenced former Harrisburg Area Community College Vice President Nancy Rockey to 15 months in prison for stealing $233,000 from the school.
The penalty U.S. Middle District Chief Judge Christopher C. Conner imposed was six months lower than that sought by the prosecutor.
Conner said he took several factors into account, including what he believes is Rockey's genuine remorse for the somewhat bizarre three-year embezzlement scheme and a deal she has struck to at least partly repay HACC's insurer.
Investigators said that, beginning in 2009, Rockey used a HACC-issued credit card to buy hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of gift cards from Amazon and Target. She then doctored financial records to hide the thefts. Rockey was arrested in January 2013 and pleaded guilty to a federal wire fraud charge 10 months later.
Rockey, 55, a single mother of two from Lower Paxton Township, was visibly nervous as she waited for Conner to enter the courtroom. She wept as Conner allowed her to speak before sentencing.
"I can never articulate…how awful I feel," she said. "Remorse is so deep inside me. And guilt."
Rockey told the judge she had "grown up at HACC," having started work there at age 22. Her career at the college spanned 31 years. "I loved HACC. I loved HACC with all my heart," she said. "There is absolutely no excuse for what I've done."
"The past three years I've been in Hell," Rockey added. "I'm a different person. I'm a broken person. But I believe in changing lives and making a difference."
One supporter called by defense attorney Adam G. Klein, psychologist Lee Morand, told Conner she believes the financial fraud stemmed at least partly from financial pressures Rockey experienced after being divorced.
"She is remorseful and in my opinion has been for three years. I believe she will be for the rest of her life," Morand said.
Another backer, Frank Dixon, chairman of the Lebanon-based Dixon Foundation and a board member and former chairman of the HACC Foundation, spoke of how impressed he was working with Rockey on fund-raising for HACC.
"She made a mistake, but I think her talents and energy are needed by society," Dixon said.
A friend, of Rockey, Doug Neidigh, said the news of her crime "hit me like a punch in the stomach." The fraud was totally out of character for her, he said.
Neidigh also urged Conner not to overlook what he said were Rockey's "dedication" and contributions to HACC. "She had a large hand in bringing the college to where it is now," he said.
Klein said Rockey had tried, unsuccessfully, to repay HACC in full from her retirement, but was unable to access the funds to do so. He said she has an agreement to settle the restitution issue by paying the college's insurer $127,500 at a pace of $18,000 annually. HACC was made whole by its insurer, Klein said.
About 20 backers of Rockey attended her sentencing hearing. Conner noted he received four dozen letters from her supporters.
Yet Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph J. Terz insisted that Rockey's crime was not so different from other financial offenses that have sent local bank officials and others to federal prison recently.
Rockey's obvious dedication to HACC simply makes her crime "all the more baffling," said Terz, who sought a prison term of at least 21 months.
"This is not a private institution. It's a public institution," he said of HACC. "She's betrayed the trust of the community, and to a larger extent the trust of society."
Conner said Rockey's crime was a "fairly complex fraud with significant financial consequences." Still, it is obvious she "was a dedicated employee in many respects," he said, and she could not have believed her embezzlement would not eventually be discovered.
"I believe Ms. Rockey is remorseful enough that she will never again engage in this type of activity," Conner said.
He ordered Rockey to begin serving her prison term on Feb. 19.