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Is 18 months for embezzling tribal chairman fair?

By David Collins

Publication: The Day

Published November 22. 2013 4:00AM

When I read that former Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Chairman Michael Thomas was sentenced to 18 months in prison for embezzling more than $100,000 from the tribe he once led, I thought maybe he was getting off easy.

On the one hand, stealing $100,000 is serious stuff, and street criminals stealing much less would probably spend a lot more time behind bars.

Federal sentencing guidelines suggested Thomas should have gotten 21 to 27 months in prison.

On the other hand, the crime he was charged with - misusing a tribal credit card for things like chauffeured rides to dialysis treatment for his ailing mother - hardly seemed heinous.

Indeed, we didn't hear much outrage from the tribal members when he was arrested. I think tribal members should have been more alarmed the way Thomas frittered away money on unnecessary expansion while chairman, like the big MGM casino and the $69 million highway to nowhere, which helps motorists speed by the casino resorts on Route 2.

If I were a tribal member I might have liked to see him punished in some way for all those terrible business decisions, which, in the end, helped close the stipend spigot for everyone.

Other than federal sentencing guidelines, it occurred to me there might be another way to assess the Thomas sentencing. After all, there's been a lot of embezzling connected to the tribe's Foxwoods Resort Casino over the years.

I discovered that if you slip "embezzlement" and "Foxwoods" into a Google search engine, the computer just about starts smoking.

Some of the cases that came up in my search were familiar.

I remember, for instance, the East Lyme school cafeteria director, a slot machine addict, who embezzled $335,000 to feed her gambling habit.

She was sentenced to nine months in prison.

Judge Susan B. Handy noted at the woman's 2010 sentencing that she had seen about a dozen similar cases in the previous three or four years, a continuing trend in gambling-related embezzlement.

"I agonize over these cases," the judge said.

Maybe Massachusetts voters who this week shot down the Pequots' plan for a Bay State casino were thinking more about all those stealing slot machine addicts than the embezzling tribal chairman when they voted no.

Many of the Foxwoods embezzlement cases my search turned up were ones we haven't heard about around here.

It proves the success in Connecticut's casino system: Lure the gamblers here, take their money and send them home. Keep the money but not all the problems.

My search was hardly scientific, but I did get a sense, from the many embezzlement sentencings stories I read that the sentence for Michael Thomas seems unfair.

After all, a former employee of the Mashantucket Pequot pharmacy got six months of home confinement in 2010 for embezzling more than $40,000. A Massachusetts man once got four months of home confinement for scheming with a Foxwoods pit boss to funnel $150,000 worth of wampum points into his casino account.

A Foxwoods bingo player from New Hampshire, on the other hand, got seven to 14 years in 2008 for embezzling $1.5 million from her employer.

Now that the Mashantuckets seem to be out of the running for a Massachusetts casino, maybe they ought to get behind an effort to repeal the Massachusetts casino law, before it allows any to open. A petition to put repeal on the ballot was just filed.

The Pequots can't very well make the argument that casinos lead to all kinds of bad things, like gambling addiction and embezzlement.

But it wouldn't hurt to help the people who can.

This is the opinion of David Collins

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