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Swindle, Then Letdown
D.C. Fraud Case Ends With a Whimper, Not a Bang

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 17, 2008

About 30 people showed up at a federal courtroom yesterday morning to get a glimpse of the woman once known around the D.C. tax office as "Mother Harriette." She was due in court any minute to plead guilty to one of the most stunning but strangely banal frauds ever committed in Washington. There was plenty of seating left.

Harriette Walters's story lacked sex or violence, but it had a fabulously sinful amount of greed and high-end retail shopping. So where is Halle Berry's option for the movie rights? Where were the civic cranks in the courtroom peanut gallery, waiting for a chance to glare at her with the indignation unique to angry taxpayers? Where are her friends and family who are not facing charges, or curious former co-workers, or general lookie-loos? How come only one TV station showed up?

Why did the story of Mother Harriette never quite catch on?

Because the main character, in the end, might as well be invisible. She looked like a hundred women you'd know in everyday Washington. Still, a few of us wanted a closer look at this person, this legendary thief.

In the 10 months since she was arrested and ultimately charged with heading a decades-long scheme to quietly help herself to nearly $50 million from the city's tax office, we seem to know more and more about how she did it, and what sorts of bling, trips and real estate she blew the taxpayers' money on. There were facts, but no full portrait of the main character. Who, in the end, is or was this Harriette Walters?

Here, at last: A side door opened into U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan's courtroom yesterday at a nearly a quarter to noon, and Walters gently glided in on dingy canvas prison slippers, in faded navy blue scrubs and a white crew-neck undershirt -- a solid-looking woman, resigned to her fate.

The only picture of Walters we've seen until now was taken at the tax office when she was the manager, and it showed a woman in a snug houndstooth blazer, with a stern face and elaborate golden bleach-blond braids. In the picture, she looks like just the sort of District employee who can either make things simple for you (too simple, with a wink) or make them very, very hard.

One could look at her and know the eternal truth: Criminal masterminds never look like criminal masterminds.

She has cut her hair short now, into the nubby beginnings of dreads, flecked with the frosty hints of whatever gold she has left. She will turn 52 on Saturday. Her brother and her nephew have already pleaded guilty, as have seven of her friends, one of whom was once her personal shopper, one who was her banker and one who was once her hairstylist. Her niece awaits trial. Mother Harriette came to plead guilty to the entire scheme, offering her full cooperation in exchange for a recommended sentence of 15 to 18 years.

Mother Harriette sat and silently waited for her attorney and prosecutors to arrive. All she brought with her was a case for her amber-framed eyeglasses. She laced her fingers and rested her chin on her hands. She idly wiped faint smudges off the defense table. She pointed to a man in the jury box and asked a question of the female officer who escorted her; the officer appeared to tell Walters that the man was a courtroom sketch artist, and Walters's face stretched into a lovely smile.

She stopped smiling when the judge arrived.

With her attorney, Steven Tabackman, by her side, Walters stood and answered questions in her soft Caribbean accent: She confirmed her signature on the plea agreement and said she understood what was going on. She gave her DOB and her place of birth ("St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands") and said she attended Georgetown to study nursing and the University of the District of Columbia to study "computer accounting," but after six years total did not earn a degree from either.

Yes, she said, she had read all 114 pages outlining the government's case against her, and understood each word.

Pleading guilty in a federal case takes about an hour. Counts are read aloud and explained, as is the forfeiture of rights. There is mathematical talk of concurrent maximum-sentence guidelines, and that sort of thing. The defendant is given a wide berth to indicate that she's suddenly changed her mind. (Walters never balked: "That is correct," she said. "Yes," she said. "It is true," she said. "Guilty as charged.")

The room was filled with anticlimax as prosecutor Timothy Lynch hit the highlights of what would have been the epic story of United States of America v. Harriette Monica Walter (a.k.a. Harriette M. Walters):

It starts with a 25-year-old woman who got a low-level job in the D.C. tax office and noticed that some people got Christmas cards with a couple hundred bucks inside, learning from sly co-workers that there were ways of futzing with triplicate forms so nobody would notice if a little money disappeared. The office converted from one computer system to another and so, too, did Mother Harriette upgrade her methods.

In the end, she and her cohorts cut at least 236 checks to themselves over 18 years. Legendarily now, Walters shopped at Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue. A little would not do; in one year alone, she stole more than $8 million.

According to her plea deal, Walters will be responsible for the entire tab, the exact amount of which was mentioned several times yesterday:

Forty-eight million one hundred fifteen thousand four-hundred fifty-one dollars. And nine cents.

Sullivan provisionally accepted the guilty plea and decided to wait to sentence Walters later. (A status hearing was scheduled for Oct. 27.) He expressed frustration -- "serious problems" -- with the sentencing guidelines, which reduce the prison term to a maximum of 18 years if Walters helps the government recover whatever's left of the money and assists in prosecuting others. "Why," he asked Walters at one point, "are you pleading guilty?"

"It would give me an opportunity to get out and go home and see my family," she said.

It was her only off note. It made you think of her on a beach somewhere.

Walters stared off to the left of the bench, toward the slate blue carpet. She was led back through the door to jail. When it was over, the prosecutors said they'd wait until the sentencing to have their news conference.

In the hallway, Tabackman, Walters's attorney, riffled through his briefcase and handed out a one-page statement he'd typed up on behalf of his client. "To any persons who believe that the range of her imprisonment is not long enough," Tabackman's statement read, "I would suggest that they might reflect on the events in their lives that have taken place over the past 15 to 18 years that they would not have participated in; it may bring a sharper perspective of the significance of the penalty that Ms. Walters has agreed to."

Fine, but, as Tabackman headed for the elevator in haste, he was asked by a reporter, "What's she like?"

"I would like for people to know," he said but declined to elaborate.

Outside, while he tried to hail a cab on Pennsylvania Avenue, a Channel 5 TV crew and reporter implored Tabackman to give just a shred of the Mother Harriette he knows: "What are you able to tell us about this woman?"

"The way she feels," he said, "is she obviously regrets this."

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