BALTIMORE, JUNE 22 -- With tears and a smile of acceptance, the former Maryland real estate escrow agent known as "Robin HUD" was sentenced to three years and 10 months in prison today for stealing at least $5.7 million from the federal government.
While federal sentencing guidelines had called for Marilyn L. Harrell to receive a maximum prison term of 37 months, U.S. District Judge Herbert F. Murray said he was granting prosecutors' request for a harsher penalty "to reflect the magnitude and scope of the crime here."
Harrell, 47, pleaded guilty in January to one count of embezzlement and one count of income-tax evasion. On the tax count, she received a one-year prison sentence to run concurrently with the longer sentence.
Harrell's case is "the greatest amount of embezzlement I've ever encountered in what is now 18 years as a federal judge," Murray said. According to prosecutors, the millions that Harrell skimmed from housing foreclosure sales handled for the Department of Housing and Urban Development from 1985 to 1988 represent the largest theft of government money by an individual in U.S. history.
Although Harrell will not be eligible for parole, prosecutors said she could be released after 42 months for so-called good time.
Before imposing the sentence, the judge asked Harrell, who had maintained a frank and upbeat demeanor since her crime was uncovered, whether she had anything to say on her own behalf.
She broke into tears and told Murray, "I've never said that what I did was right. I think that if a person steals five cents they are wrong . . . . I am grateful to be standing here before you. For five years, I've anticipated standing here and known they would find out what I did. In some ways, if it had happened earlier I would be better off."
Since emerging early last year as a national symbol of HUD's mismanagement, Harrell has maintained in interviews and before congressional committees that the vast majority of the money she stole went to charity. Prosecutors countered that $1.1 million -- less than a fifth of the money she stole -- was given away.
Today, four witnesses testified about Harrell's generosity in helping to clothe, house and employ the poor, but Murray refused to consider philanthropic motives and acts as a mitigating factor in weighing Harrell's request for a reduced sentence of 16 months.
"It would be sort of ridiculous for the defendant in an embezzlement case to come out better because one more charitable gift was made than in some other case," Murray said.
In addition to handing down the prison term, the judge ordered Harrell to serve three years' probation and to pay $600,000 in restitution, about $490,000 of which the government has recovered from the sale of her house, automobile, businesses and other personal assets.
First Assistant U.S. Attorney Gary P. Jordan said the government had despaired of ever recovering more than that. But defense attorney, Assistant Federal Public Defender Anthony Gallagher, said Harrell plans to pay back whatever she can with the proceeds from the autobiography she has written.
In addressing the court today, Harrell described the web of deception she said she wove after first transferring HUD funds into her personal account and the unsuccessful attempts she made to break herself of the practice.
"It seemed to mushroom, to grow -- more and more people coming, more and more monies going out . . . . I tried dissolving my corporation and was told that people at HUD would lose their jobs," she said.
"I will not be upset if you give me a maximum term. And I will ask you for it because as a person who did what I did . . . I deserve this," she concluded.
Murray cited that comment and "the significant disruption in a government function" that her theft caused as factors in his decision on her sentence.
Facing a sea of television cameras after her courtroom appearance, Harrell, smiling, described the judge's action as fair. Repeating that what she did was not justified, she nonetheless said she thinks that some good has and will come out of her actions, both in drawing attention to the needs of the poor and in highlighting problems at HUD.
"I'm going to get four years out of my life for this. And I'm proud of it because the people I served were precious," she said.
Defense attorney Gallagher, however, said he plans to appeal the sentence. He said he was particularly concerned with Murray's refusal to consider during sentencing what Harrell did with the stolen funds. He said he also thinks the judge incorrectly decided not to lower Harrell's sentence even though she "extraordinarily" cooperated with government investigators.
In arguing these points to Murray, Gallagher referred to the still-unraveling scandals that plagued HUD during the Reagan administration and painted his client as someone with a sincere desire to help those less fortunate than herself.
"The government was not doing its job. There is ample evidence that during this period of time political cronies and favors were handed out wholesale from the office of the secretary of HUD," Gallagher said. "She was doing the government's job: giving housing to people who needed it."
Murray ordered Harrell to surrender to the custody of federal marshals on July 30.