A federal judge in Alexandria yesterday ordered the former chief executive of the local United Way to serve 27 months in prison, the maximum sentence, for his role in a financial scandal that nearly ruined the charity.
Oral Suer, 69, who ran the United Way of the National Capital Area for 27 years before retiring in 2001, pleaded guilty in March to defrauding the charity of almost $500,000. He admitted charging the organization for personal expenses such as bowling equipment and trips to Las Vegas, paying himself $333,000 for annual leave he had already used and siphoning $94,000 more than his share from the charity's pension plan.
At the hearing, U.S. District Judge Gerald Bruce Lee also ordered Suer to pay $497,000 in restitution. Suer, a native of Turkey who is a permanent U.S. resident but never obtained citizenship, is likely to be deported after his sentence, defense lawyers said.
Lee gave Suer the maximum possible sentence under a federal sentencing guideline range of 21 to 27 months. He acknowledged that Suer had accomplished a great deal at the United Way but said: "At the same time, you were involved in theft. That's the only way to put it -- theft." The judge agreed to recommend that Suer serve his sentence at a minimum-security prison.
"This is a very sad day for me, for the community and for the United Way,'' Suer said in a quavering voice after apologizing to the United Way, its staff, its donors and the judge. "What I feel is embarrassment, shame and guilt."
The ending of the high-profile case did little to please officials at the United Way, which has filed a civil suit against Suer and is seeking $1.6 million, based on an audit released last summer that found he took that much. Suer has paid $94,000, which will be subtracted from the $497,000 he was ordered to hand over yesterday.
"The harm that he did to the people of this region is incalculable," said Eric Holder, an attorney for the United Way of the National Capital Area. "We don't think $497,000 adequately expresses the true nature of his crimes.
"His apologies,'' Holder added, "even though they may have been great in number, are way too late and have too little impact.''
In his decades at the helm of the United Way, Suer won plaudits for his skill in building the local charity into a national behemoth.
Since the scandal broke in 2002, the United Way of the National Capital Area has dwindled drastically in size. A fundraising drive among private employers last year raised about $19 million, compared with the more than $90 million raised from government and private employees in 2001.
The organization also has laid off more than half its workforce, closed several regional offices and surrendered its contract to run the workplace campaign for federal employees.
The charges against Suer emerged from a grand jury investigation that began in August 2002 after The Washington Post published a series of articles about financial mismanagement at the United Way. Records showed that Suer improperly took an early pension payout of tens of thousands of dollars more than he was entitled to and charged personal expenses on United Way credit cards without reimbursing the organization.
The United Way initially denied the questionable practices and ousted employees and board members who pushed for an investigation. But in late 2002, it forced the resignation of Suer's successor, Norman O. Taylor, and replaced its governing board of directors.
Last year, a new chief executive was brought in, and an outside investigation of the allegations was commissioned. That probe by an accounting firm revealed that Suer and his top managers had dipped with impunity into the millions raised each year for charity. The report accused Suer of siphoning $1.6 million in various ways, including the pension payout and advances on his salary that were never repaid.
In the criminal case, Suer pleaded guilty to transporting stolen money across state lines, making false statements and concealing facts relating to an employee retirement plan.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Wiechering urged that the maximum sentence be imposed, saying Suer had taken advantage of a United Way board that let him operate with a "hands-off approach."
"His response to that generosity was to loot and steal from the United Way," Wiechering said. "He did it systematically, and he did it intentionally."
Defense lawyer Blair Brown urged leniency, saying the judge should take into account Suer's "enormous contributions to the United Way and to the community."
After yesterday's hearing, Suer stepped into an elevator, shook hands with Wiechering and told him: "I'm sorry I caused you a lot of problems."
"Thanks, I appreciate that," Wiechering responded.