How is it possible to get caught stealing $5 million from the public school system and get away with nothing more than a conditional discharge? There are people in Queens who have been sent to jail for shoplifting and yet District Attorney Brown and Judge John Latella Jr. agreed to allow a former school official and four other conspirators to get away with far less than a slap on the wrist.
Last Friday former District 29 Celestine Miller, her husband and three other defendants pled guilty to a complex bid-rigging scheme and promised to make full restitution of $4.85 million to the Department of Education. Under the terms of the conditional discharge, if the defendants pay the restitution and do not get arrested again within prescribed period of time, the charges against them will be dismissed. In essence, the court looked at a 123-count indictment and told the defendants to pay the money back and whole thing will be forgotten.
In announcing the plea bargain, DA Brown said the defendants' scheme "victimized the children of southeast Queens who lost critically needed classroom resources." If the prosecutor really believes this, why would he agree to allow all five defendants to walk away unpunished? Brown said the plea bargain was "without precedent in Queens County." That's for sure.
The defendants were charged with using inside information to win a computer installation contract in District 29 during the time when Miller was superintendent of the district. In return for her services, Miller received $925,000.
If tough sentences handed out to drug dealers are intended to save a message, then excessively lenient sentences handed out to white-collar criminals also send a message. And the message is that in Queens there is a double standard.
In Westchester the husband of the district attorney was sent to federal prison for falsifying his income tax returns. The amount of money involved in this white-collar crime was far less than the $5 million in this case and the money was not taken from children attending poorly equipped schools.
Brown may argue that the people of Queens should be happy with the deal because the district will be getting the money back. Perhaps. But these defendants have substantial assets and Brown could have taken steps to seize those assets at the same time he put the defendants in prison.
In case as complex as this, there are bound to be details of which we are not aware. And we would be the first to agree that, with this exception, Miller gave the people of Queens decades of dedicated service. But she and her husband abused the public trust and allowed scoundrels to steal from the children of her district.
The punishment here does not fit the crime.
The war on drug took an ugly turn last week when police raided the home of a private-duty nurse in St. Albans.
Michael Thompson said he standing in his kitchen when 20 police officers used a battering ram to break down the front door of his house before ransacking the home in a search for drugs. The police threw him to the floor and held a gun to his head.
After 15 minutes the police left. They found no evidence that Thompson was involved in drugs. To his credit, later that morning, Deputy Insp. John Essig, the commanding officer of South Jamaica's 113th Precinct, came to Thompson's house to apologize. He then posted an officer to stand by the broken door.
In the war on drugs, it is inevitable that mistakes will be made. Before they break down doors and terrorize innocent people, the police should make sure their information is reliable. And when a mistake is made, the city should move quickly to repair the damage that was done.
©2002 Community News Group
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