Lawyer Says Harriette Walters Stole From D.C. to Play 'Benefactor'

Harriette Walters pleaded guilty last year to wire fraud, money laundering and other charges.
Harriette Walters pleaded guilty last year to wire fraud, money laundering and other charges. (D.C. Government Photo)
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By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Harriette Walters was insecure.

She abused alcohol and drugs. She gambled too much. She was overweight. All her life, she considered herself a failure. That changed only when she doled out large sums of cash to co-workers and friends, her largesse transforming her into a benefactor.

That is the portrait that emerged of Walters, mastermind of the D.C. tax office scandal, in court papers filed yesterday.

"Ms. Walters giving away some of the stolen funds helped soften the disparity in her mind between who she was and who she wanted to be," her attorney, Steven Tabackman, wrote.

Walters, 52, pleaded guilty last year to wire fraud, money laundering and other charges, admitting that she played a central role in a $48.1 million rip-off of the city treasury over two decades. Under a plea agreement, she faces 15 to 18 years in prison at a June 16 sentencing.

The former mid-level manager in the D.C. tax office and nine others have been prosecuted in the massive embezzlement. Walters is the last to be sentenced. She has never publicly explained why she stole. Federal prosecutors have blamed it on her desire for a lavish lifestyle that included travel and designer clothing.

Her attorney offered a more nuanced account. Walters suffered unspecified childhood traumas, which were behind her substance abuse, gambling and low self-esteem, Tabackman wrote in urging U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan to sentence Walters to the minimum under the plea agreement.

Tabackman attributed her father's "central role as the family's gift giver" as the "source of her documented practice of giving away extraordinary sums."

"The ability to play the role of benefactor was a particularly strong motivating factor in the continuation of the scheme," he wrote. "While Ms. Walters recognizes that spreading the wealth she obtained through illegal conduct does not justify or excuse the conduct, it is equally clear that Ms. Walters was genuinely desirous of helping others."

Tabackman noted that Walters gave co-workers money for clothes, private school tuition and even funerals.

A Georgetown University psychiatrist who examined Walters at Tabackman's request reported that she had "suffered from a constellation of childhood traumas and deficits."

Her "significant misuse of substances degraded the power with which [her] moral sense would have stopped her activity," the psychiatrist found, according to Tabackman.

Walters knew that processing fraudulent refund checks was a crime, Tabackman wrote, but her desire to be a provider and the "thrill" of the "activity within her otherwise depressed life . . . was sufficient to allow Ms. Walters to carry out her plan."

Walters apparently was lonely, according to Tabackman. Her "first sustained social interactions" came in gambling outings at local firehouses, Tabackman wrote. Soon, she was betting "beyond her means . . . often losing her salary on the night she received it."

"The excitement it provided together with the attractiveness of the social environment would cause her to return, and to increase her thefts in order to fund her activities," Tabackman added.

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