10/1/07

$200K union-dues embezzlement earns wrist-slap

The attorney told the Multnomah County (OR) judge about his client's bum knees, her depression, her insomnia and the powerful addiction to gambling that led her to steal more than $200,000 in teachers' union dues.

Cheryl Ann Cooper - an accounting teacher at Reynolds High School before she resigned last year - is so remorseful that she's already paid back more than $100,000, attorney Mike Greenlick said. Cooper apologized profusely to the judge, then turned to teachers in the courtroom's audience and started sobbing.

"I honestly don't know how many ways I can say that I'm so sorry," said Cooper, 55, who had been a teacher for 21 years. Judge Richard Baldwin was swayed by Cooper and her attorney's remarks. Although Dennis Shen, the prosecutor, argued Friday that Cooper should spend 19 months in prison, Baldwin sentenced her to five years on probation. She was convicted of five counts of first-degree aggravated theft.

A 2005 review by The Oregonian found that Oregon embezzlers - especially first-time ones who take less than $100,000 - often get lighter sentences compared with other criminals. In 2002, about four out of five of those convicted of first-degree theft, which includes embezzlement, got probation. Those who were sent to prison averaged a 12-month sentence.

Cooper didn't have a criminal history. She had been treasurer of the Reynolds Education Association since 1999 and was accused of siphoning away money from November 2000 to March 2006. She resigned in April.

Shen, a deputy district attorney, argued that the justice system should be consistent and that, in his experience, people who have stolen as much as Cooper typically spend more than four years in prison.

He acknowledged that Cooper case's was a little different but said that Cooper should receive at least some prison time to deter others who might be considering such a white-collar crime.

"I think we need to send a strong message ... (to) someone who regularly reads the paper and sees what happens to someone who steals a large amount of money," Shen said.

But in arguing for no prison time, Greenlick told the judge that Cooper was very different from other embezzlers because she'd sold her house and cashed out her retirement fund so she could start paying the union back.

"What you very often see is people throw up their hands and say 'Sorry, I don't have the money,'" Greenlick said. "Most people say 'I'll pay $100 a month.'"

He said that Cooper has been paying the union $1,000 a month from her state pension and that Cooper will double the amount when her Social Security disability payments start arriving.

If Cooper is sent to prison, she would lose her Social Security and the union will have to wait longer to get its money back, Greenlick said.

(oregonlive.com)

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