Wednesday, November 8, 2017
Former district judge sentenced for theft, mishandling funds
Dougherty's words came back to haunt him Monday.
The old case was referenced several times as he was sentenced before visiting Senior Judge John L. Braxton of Philadelphia County, for a similar theft that ended his nearly 18-year career as a district judge in May 2016.
Dougherty, 58, of Wyomissing admitted at his guilty plea on Sept. 20 that he stole nearly $100,000 from a volunteer fire company organization and mishandled more than $15,000 from his court office.
Braxton said that he wouldn't be harsh, as Dougherty had asked when he was the victim, but said the ex-district judge must pay his debt for violating the public trust.
Braxton sentenced him to six to 23 months in Berks County Prison followed by five years of probation. Dougherty, also a former police officer, was placed in handcuffs immediately and taken to the prison Monday night.
“I do not believe you are a bad man, but that you engaged in bad behaviors,” Braxton said, adding that the case's significance stretches beyond Dougherty in trying to restore the community's faith in the judicial system.
“I have to bring this to closure … not with just a slap on the wrist to send you home and play house arrest,” the judge said.
The penalty fell between requests from Deputy Attorney General Michelle Laucella and defense attorney Allan L. Sodomsky.
Laucella asked for at least one year in state prison, while Sodomsky asked for house arrest and probation.
Braxton and the attorney general's office handled the case to avoid potential conflicts of interest.
What went wrong?
Before imposing the sentence, Braxton said the unknown reason for Dougherty's fall from grace and where the money went still “truly troubles me” and “boggles my mind.”
“I just don't understand what was going on in the mind of this man,” Braxton said. “He has all of what is reflective of what a quality life is. … What went wrong with the good things?”
Authorities said that Dougherty stole $97,780 from the Wyomissing Fire Company's volunteer component, where he served as treasurer, from November 2008 to September 2015, and also mishandled $15,251 from his court office in September and October 2015.
When investigators asked about the missing funds, Dougherty told them that it was spent on “life,” not exciting things like “drugs or prostitutes.”
Laucella said that her office never gained a clear understanding of where the money went or why the court's finances were mishandled.
Dougherty didn't answer that question either Monday, but hinted at an explanation.
“Someone I cared deeply for needed more of me than I had,” he said. “I made decisions with my heart and not my head and I lost my way.”
Dougherty apologized to his family, specifically his wife, Susan, for making her wear “the scarlet letter that only I deserve.”
He said he will make the fire company whole again and hopes one day his the organization's members will forgive him for his betrayal.
Dougherty was ordered Monday to pay about $70,000 more to the organization after already paying back $27,780.
“I'm not an evil man and I'm no danger to society,” Dougherty said. “I'm not really even a bad person. I just made a bad decision.”
Dougherty was making an annual salary of $88,290 when he was charged in the case. He resigned shortly afterward and lost his pension when he pleaded guilty Sept. 20 to theft by unlawful taking and misapplication of public funds.
He will receive the pension he earned with the Cumru Township Police Department. Before entering law enforcement, Dougherty spent four years in the Navy, including three as an administrator at the Pentagon.
Dougherty's wife and five friends gave statements on his behalf, speaking of various times he came to their aid, calling him loving, dedicated and dependable.
Sodomsky said that he believed the sentence was fair and that Braxton thoughtfully weighed Dougherty's crimes against the rest of his life.
“I'm thankful that the matter's over,” Sodomsky said. “It's a sad day for our justice system.”
Laucella was also satisfied with the sentence and said she believed justice was served. She thanked the many individuals from the fire company organization and court office who testified before the state investigating grand jury and came to the sentencing.
“Without these people and their testimony, we wouldn't have been able to move forward,” she said. “It just shows that there are good people out there.”
Prosecutors said that the money taken from the fire company was largely made up of donations. As treasurer, Dougherty maintained the group's financial records.
Authorities said that his records were full of discrepancies and the balances did not match the actual money in the accounts.
Laucella said that investigators found Dougherty made 127 unauthorized cash withdrawals from the savings account in seven years, noting that bank records did not go back any further.
No one from the organization spoke at the sentencing, but its president, Richard Bare, wrote in a statement they have been subjected to ridicule and that trust in the organization has eroded. He said the theft crippled the organization financially, draining its account to barely $1,000.
The organization does not respond to fires, but does community education on fire prevention and safety, and also preserves firefighting history through a small museum and antique fire engine.
Bare said that Wyomissing Borough Council took on many of those responsibilities in the past year because the organization didn't have enough to buy a charger and batteries for the antique engine so that it could be used at two annual parades.
Bare said the organization “implemented financial safeguards for this to never happen again” and hopes other volunteer organizations do the same.
Two former clerks testified about the tense atmosphere in the court office as the investigation played out.
The investigation began when authorities discovered discrepancies in the amounts in the court's bank account and what was reported to the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.
The district court collects fines, restitution and court costs in civil and criminal cases and is required to make daily deposits.
Dougherty made the nightly deposits for his office and had final authority over the court's finances.
Investigators determined $15,251 was unaccounted for and questioned Dougherty about the missing funds in early October 2015. He claimed he didn't have the money.
But Dougherty deposited the full amount 20 days later on Oct. 27, 2015, the day before he was subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury.
Former clerk James Caltagirone said that he considered Dougherty to be a close friend as well as an employer.
He said he was at the district judge's side and called for an ambulance when Dougherty fell down stairs the morning he was to turn himself into authorities.
Caltagirone also asked Dougherty to one day pay him back for the $3,000 loan he gave him in April 2015.
Former clerk Margaret Yatron said that she was shocked when she found out what was happening and didn't know how to handle it.
“The tension and fear of him catching on that we knew what was going on was unbelievable,” she said, noting the court employees were initially suspects, too. “It was 15 months that we were there and knew it.”
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Former district judge sentenced for theft, mishandling funds