Did fraudster take $1.1 million - or just 900G

Posted: January 06, 2012

THE OWNER of a now-defunct Feasterville law firm, Debbie Carlitz, told a federal judge yesterday that admitted fraudster Bonnie Sweeten stole her payroll checks and deposited them into her own personal account.

Sweeten, 41, who was the office manager at the law firm, had been expected to be sentenced yesterday, but attorneys for the government and Sweeten spent all day arguing over how much money that Sweeten, who worked at the law firm from 2005 to 2009, stole.

The feds say more than $1.1 million; the defense says $948,077. (The feds say $640,854 of that amount is law-firm money Sweeten diverted to her personal account.)

U.S. District Judge William H. Yohn Jr. didn't set a date to resume sentencing. But if he determines the fraud loss is $1 million or more, Sweeten - who made national headlines by claiming to have been kidnapped while she was actually in Disney World with her daughter - could be exposed to 15 to 19 additional months in prison under advisory sentencing guidelines.

As office manager for the Carlitz law firm, Sweeten was responsible for payroll, taxes, bookkeeping, office expenses and all bank accounts, court papers said.

John Mitchell, a CPA retained by the defense, said that some money should be deducted from the government's fraud total because Sweeten had told him that Carlitz had authorized her to deposit payroll checks payable to Carlitz into a business account for Sweeten's former husband's landscaping business.

He said he found Sweeten to be "firm and convincing." But, on cross-examination by Assistant U.S. Attorney Denise Wolf, Mitchell said he had not interviewed Carlitz or reviewed her personal bank account.

Carlitz testified she had "never" authorized the deposit of payroll checks into the Sweeten business account.

"I trusted Bonnie," Carlitz said. "I'm not going to say I was minding the store."

On cross-examination, federal defender James J. McHugh Jr. attacked Carlitz's credibility, broaching the subject of what led her to dissolve a legal practice with a former law partner.

Sweeten pleaded guilty last June to stealing $280,000 in 2008 from an elderly relative's retirement account and to using a fake driver's license and passport to impersonate Carlitz to obtain a $100,000 mortgage that had been secured by personal property owned by Carlitz.

Carlitz testified that she had "never used her law office to collateralize any loan."

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