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Embezzler from housing fund gets prison

Feb. 25, 2014 @ 12:00 AM

HUNTINGTON -- A former Huntington Housing Authority administrator will spend time in federal prison for her role in embezzling more than $23,000 from a grant program intended to help disabled and homeless people.

Patricia A. Howard, 54, received a prison sentence of a year and a day Monday from U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers. He ordered that the punishment runs separately from and begins after Howard completes a state sentence for attempted fraud in another case. She also was ordered to repay the stolen money.

Howard, now a two-time convicted felon, had pleaded guilty in late November to embezzlement from an organization receiving federal benefits. It was the sole count of an indictment, which charged her with creating a fictitious landlord, diverting federal housing funds to that account and linking it with her personal checking account.

Those actions enabled Howard to embezzle $23,173 between August 2011 and August 2012, according to the indictment and court records. It occurred while Howard worked as a technician who processed funds received from the federal government's Shelter Plus Care Program for the Huntington Housing Authority.

"The Huntington Housing Authority gave me an opportunity, and I blew it," Howard told Chambers at her sentencing.

Chambers agreed with that assessment. He said he was troubled by these allegations, the fraud sentence in state court and pending fraud charges in Ohio, all of which happened during the same time frame. He specifically noted her taking the initial steps to set up the housing scheme within two to three months of beginning employment.

"I frankly don't understand it," he said.

The grant program was designed to help the chronically homeless, addicted and others, recipients whom assistant federal prosecutor Erik Goes described as the nation's most vulnerable.

Chambers said such programs are often difficult to maintain, and the judge told Howard cases like hers feed taxpayer skepticism about government waste.

Howard apologized to the court, the Housing Authority and her family Monday, saying she hoped her actions were more hurtful to herself than anyone else. That followed earlier letters of apology to the Housing Authority and others involved in the case, according comments made Monday and a sentencing memorandum filed by public defender Rhett Johnson.

Chambers additionally ordered Howard to pay full restitution to the Housing Authority in the amount of $23,173. He tied restitution to three years of supervised release and ordered the prison time be served after her existing, 1- to 3-year state prison sentence was completed. Johnson said Howard recently was denied parole and could discharge the state punishment in August.

The state's prosecution involved a guilty plea to attempt to commit a felony in late 2012. The attempted felony was fraudulent use of an access device, which involved $350 taken from a man's credit/debit card account, according to Cabell Circuit Court records.

Johnson, in Monday's courtroom statement and his memorandum, acknowledged Howard's history of fraud in arguing for the lightest sentence possible. He called it her only vice and contrasted her with violent criminals and drug offenders. His memorandum noted investigators found no evidence of lavish spending; the money was used to cover household bills and help family members.

The Feb. 13 filing also touted Howard's immediate confession upon questioning and her written letter expressing remorse to the Housing Authority. It further stated her husband receives a fixed income and cited her preference for her son to attend a private school.

"Though she has demonstrated her willingness to maintain employment to provide for herself and family, it seems clear that Ms. Howard has difficulty managing her own personal finances," the memorandum states. "Her difficulty with managing her personal finances, coupled with her desire to help others, appear to have precipitated her wrongdoing."

Goes told the court Howard was someone he would trust with his children, but not with his wallet. He acknowledged her remorse, but reminded the court she only stopped her fraudulent activity upon being caught. He said the two convictions, pending fraud charges in Ohio and her history of writing worthless checks merit a prison sentence to deter her and others from committing such crime.

Follow Curtis Johnson at Facebook.com/curtisjohnsonHD and via Twitter @curtisjohnsonHD.

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