Auto insurance agent Andrea Washington was sentenced to two years in prison last week for pocketing a year's worth of insurance premiums paid by clients who were left uninsured.
The sentence was six months longer than the maximum recommended by federal prosecutors.
But Washington's former customers lamented that the sentence handed down by U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon will not bring back more than $100,000 in premiums they paid for insurance policies that didn't exist.
"I think it was the right amount of time in prison," said Keacha Wheeler, 32, a cosmetologist from Hyattsville. "But she ought to have to pay everybody their money back."
Wheeler found out the insurance policy that Washington sold her was phony after Wheeler was in an accident. The automotive shop where Washington sent her to get her car repaired notified Wheeler she would have to pay the $5,000 car repair bill in cash because the vehicle was not insured.
After Wheeler's attorney intervened, the insurance company agreed to pay the repair bill because their agent wrote the phony policy. But Wheeler said she's still out $5,400 for two years' worth of bogus premiums and some rental car costs.
Washington, a Maryland insurance agent, wrote policies on behalf of Travelers, Progressive and Bankers Independent insurance companies from her business, AMW Insurance Inc.
She was caught selling sham policies to 80 customers and keeping their premium checks for her personal use from January 2002 to February 2003. The insurance carriers alerted the D.C. insurance commissioner and the U.S. attorney's office that Washington was not forwarding money for policies she had issued. As part of an agreement, Washington pleaded guilty to fraud in May, and federal prosecutors proposed that she spend 12 to 18 months in prison and pay restitution of $23,729. But Judge Leon, who learned at a September hearing that Washington had continued taking premiums after her May guilty plea, said Washington had earned a tougher sentence.
Leon used his discretion to exceed the sentencing guidelines by ordering a 24-month sentence. He also ordered Washington to repay insurance companies $32,249 for the costs they incurred in paying claims on nonexistent policies. But that doesn't include all the money the 80 customers lost, either for bogus premiums or for real damages from accidents.
David Tompkins, an attorney representing many of Washington's former clients in a civil suit against the insurance companies, said the federal investigation viewed the insurance companies as Washington's primary victims and focused less on the problems of the individual insurance clients.
"It shows where the priorities for the D.C. insurance commissioner's office and the U.S. attorney's office are," Tompkins said. "They think the insurance company is the victim. They didn't consider all these people victims."
Federal prosecutors have said that the insurance companies have pledged to pay the clients' claims and damages under policies that Washington wrote. Tompkins said the companies have not always been willing to do that, and insurance company representatives have declined to comment, citing ongoing investigations and litigation.
Washington and her attorney have also declined to comment on her sentence or the case.
Many of Washington's former clients argue that the insurance companies should have notified them -- not just the U.S. attorney's office -- when they learned of Washington's fraud.
Valerie Menard, a Washington homemaker, said she cringes whenever she thinks about the two years she drove her new Silverado truck without any insurance. She learned that fact when she was rear-ended and submitted medical bills, all while prosecutors were negotiating a plea agreement with Washington.
"The insurance companies are guilty, too," Menard said. "I would expect they would have integrity that -- if she was pulling a scam -- they should alert people to it. Each company knew who she was doing this to. But they didn't tell us."