DA’s office beefs up financial crimes unit
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NORTHAMPTON — The Northwestern district attorney’s office has sharpened its focus on paper trails with the creation of an economic crimes unit to help detect and prosecute cases of fraud and embezzlement in Hampshire and Franklin counties.
District Attorney David E. Sullivan said the initiative comes as prosecutors investigate nearly a dozen cases of alleged financial fraud involving approximately $1.25 million.
“Being able to pursue these cases is very difficult,” Sullivan said. “Most prosecutors will say cases involving paper trails are not their favorite.”
In recent months, Sullivan has met with staff in the Middlesex district attorney’s office, which has a unit specializing in cases of public corruption and financial and technology-related crimes such as ID theft. In August, he hired certified fraud examiner Robert M. Harrison to support prosecutors handling financial cases.
Harrison, 59, of Easthampton, is a former chief internal auditor for the five-campus system of the University of Massachusetts, where he reported to the president and board of trustees. He also spent a decade with the Internal Revenue Service helping investigate financial crimes.
“Bob’s role is to really light the fire under prosecutors to make sure they are pursuing these cases,” Sullivan said.
Harrison, a former Easthampton city councilor, is working 15 hours a week. His position is funded in part by a $10,000 grant the district attorney’s office received from the Insurance Fraud Bureau of Massachusetts.
Harrison’s primary role is to support prosecutors handling cases involving fraud and embezzlement from individuals, banks, businesses and nonprofit organizations. First Assistant District Attorney Stephen Gagne and Assistant District Attorney Jayme Parent are likely to take on many of these cases.
“Some people really like to dig through piles of paper (and) sometimes they need that helping hand from a certified forensic examiner,” Sullivan said. “It gives us the ability in-house to look at these cases in a timely way and to get it right.”
Sullivan said he has been “blown away” by the number of local cases involving financial crimes.
The DA’s office recently prosecuted the case of Amy Wing, a Hatfield bookkeeper who admitted stealing $175,000 from a Northampton company through a series of financial transactions that included writing company checks to herself, forging signatures and using company credit cards for personal use. Wing, 44, faces sentencing in January.
“They are unbelievably tedious,” Harrison said of financial fraud cases. “You really have to be patient, very patient.”
Last week, the DA’s office wrapped up the case of a Hadley woman who prosecutors say stole $112,000 from the Amherst-Pelham Education Association over six years. Elizabeth Walsh, the group’s former treasurer, pleaded guilty to one count of larceny over $250. She received a two-year suspended jail sentence and five years of probation. She was ordered to pay the association $9,000 for an insurance deductible and the cost of an independent auditor it hired to examine its books. Walsh earlier paid back $66,000 to the association. Insurance covered the remaining $46,000 in stolen money.
Harrison said most financial fraud is detected by accident or via tips. He said lack of management controls and oversight in organizations or businesses opens the door to fraud and abuse.
Harrison said he’s particularly disturbed by fraud against the elderly and disabled. He said he expects that his work with prosecutors will overlap with the Elder and Persons with Disabilities and Consumer Protection units.
Crimes against the elderly can be hard to detect because they often go unreported, he said.
“Those are the ones that really bother you,” Harrison said. “It’s opportunity, and it’s greed.”
Successful prosecutions can sometimes take years, as was the case involving Therese J. Pietraszkiewicz, 57, of Easthampton, who was sentenced in 2010 to a year in jail and five years of probation after admitting in court to stealing $300 from one elderly friend and nearly $10,000 from a second individual, a 94-year-old woman. Pietraszkiewicz bought groceries, clothes and gifts with the money.
The thefts, which were discovered in 2008 by a home care provider, occurred while Pietraszkiewicz was on probation for earlier stealing $219 from a mentally disabled woman in her care.
Other cases of fraud have involved enormous amounts of money. Last week, a former South Hadley man, James June, was sentenced to nearly seven years in federal prison for defrauding multiple lending institutions in a mortgage fraud scheme involving $75 million in loans and more than 100 real estate transactions in Florida and western Massachusetts, notably in South Hadley. The long-running case, preceded by earlier prison sentences for two other co-conspirators, was investigated by local, state and federal agencies, including the Northwestern DA’s office.
Sullivan said businesses and organizations should hire an internal auditor or accountant if red flags appear. Although that can be expensive, he said, it makes for more effective prosecutions.
“They need to help flesh out the fraud, embezzlement and theft,” Sullivan said. “We really share businesses’ and nonprofits’ frustrations in prosecuting these cases in a timely way.”
Dan Crowley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.