By Keith L. Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 30, 2007
Timing often plays a crucial role in law and order. And the timing could not have been worse for Brenda Belton, the former D.C. charter schools executive who stood before a judge yesterday.
Belton, 61, convicted of stealing and illegally steering more than $800,000 in school system money, was begging for mercy in the same courthouse where another corruption case is playing out, involving the alleged theft by two other D.C. government employees of $20 million or more from city tax collections.
That didn't escape the attention of U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina, who gave Belton a 35-month prison term, 11 months more than the defense had sought and two months shy of the maximum under federal sentencing guidelines. Urbina said he wanted to show government employees that thievery will be prosecuted to the fullest extent.
"It seems you can't pick up a newspaper without seeing another D.C. or federal official accused of stealing funds," Urbina said. Stronger deterrents are needed, he added, for those who might leverage their power "to get great personal benefits for themselves."
Urbina did not specifically mention the case against Harriette Walters and Diane Gustus, former D.C. tax office employees who are accused of taking part in the biggest theft in the D.C. government's history. Nor did he mention Wednesday's guilty plea from Sandy Jones, the former business manager of a D.C. school for emotionally disturbed elementary students, who admitted stealing $30,000 intended for a chess club.
But he made clear that Belton's theft was a serious matter. So brazen was Belton that she turned a bedroom into an extra closet to hold designer items she bought with the money.
"Education is key, in this city in particular. And what you did was further damage an already crippled system," Urbina said. "This conduct actually hurts some of our most needy citizens, these children."
In a letter to Urbina, Victor Reinoso, the District's deputy mayor for education, said the stolen money could have paid for the hiring of 17 teachers or the purchase of 17,000 textbooks.
Belton, who was responsible for monitoring 17 charter schools for the D.C. Board of Education from 2003 to 2006, pleaded guilty in August to theft and tax evasion. Prosecutors said she cheated the system throughout her tenure as chief executive of the board's Office of Charter School Oversight.
Prosecutors said Belton steered about $446,000 in no-bid contracts to friends and a cousin and stole $203,000 by directing school money to a fictitious company. At the same time, she received $180,000 in illegal payments and kickbacks from friends for whom she helped win school business.
As part of her plea agreement, Belton promised to pay restitution of $384,000, the amount she was accused of pocketing in the scheme. Prosecutors say at least seven others participated in the embezzlement, but no charges have been filed against them. Authorities said Belton was the driving force behind the thefts and steering of contracts.
She used the money to build a large wardrobe, prosecutors said. An FBI raid last year of her home in the Crestwood section of Upper Northwest Washington turned up three fur coats, a mink stole and 20 new purses, including five large Louis Vuitton bags.
Belton also had five racks filled with new shoes and boots, prosecutors said. The bedroom-turned-closet had an industrial-size clothing rack often found in department stores, and many of the clothes still had their price tags. Investigators also found 60 large trash bags full of clothes in Belton's basement.
People who know Belton said that many of the purses were designer knockoffs and that the bags of clothes were intended for charity.
As if trying to understand how Belton, who obtained a doctorate in education primarily through government grants, could steal money targeted primarily for programs aiding inner-city students, Urbina asked her: "What were you thinking?"
Belton, standing at a podium, spoke of her dedication to education and her remorse. She said she had contemplated suicide since her arrest.
"This is not who I am," she said. "I wasn't trying to come up with a scheme. . . . I found myself in a situation where I was trying to cover. I did one thing after another and found myself lying. I don't know what was going through my mind."
Urbina said he was "very unimpressed" with her response.
He did give Belton a break by permitting her to remain free until January.
Belton's attorney, Vincent H. Cohen Jr., said she had cooperated with the authorities since the allegations came to light last year, adding that she plans to serve her sentence "with dignity and looks forward to making a positive contribution to the community upon her release."
Cohen asked Urbina to recommend that Belton be evaluated by the prison's drug and alcohol abuse program.
Belton's family and friends, including her sister, daughter and ministers, filled three rows of seating at the sentencing. Many said they hoped Urbina would show Belton leniency, considering her role as an educator.
"It's a waste of resources putting her in jail," said Lafayette Seymour, a minister at Belton's church, the District-based Unity Center of Truth. "She would do more good if she were granted time served and were allowed to return to help the children with her skills and education."
Urbina disagreed. In his final words to Belton, a D.C. native, he further voiced his ire. "You created a legacy of distrust among parents, children and D.C. taxpayers," he said. "This city deserves better. If you don't understand that, who does?"