City Desk

How Harriette Walters Made Up For Her Crimes

Harriette Walters"She had a nice run; now it's time to pay the piper. That's all there is to it."

That's what LL heard from a fellow spectator in Courtroom 24 of the E. Barrett Prettyman United States Courthouse this morning, while we waited for the greatest thief of public funds in District government history, Harriette Walters, to enter, along with man who had her future in his hands, Judge Emmet G. Sullivan.

Truth be told, Sullivan's role was not quite that dramatic. Walters and her attorney, Steven C. Tabackman and worked out a plea deal with federal prosecutors, so it was left to Sullivan only to decide whether Walters would get 15 years of incarceration or 18 years. Still, those three years were debated, quite passionately at times, by Tabackman, Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Lynch, and by Walters herself.

Walters entered the courtroom dressed in a blue garment, her hair short and braided. She wore glasses that she took off and placed on the table for most of the proceeding. At the beginning of the hearing, Sullivan brought Walters, 52, up to a podium answer a few perfunctory questions; she then sat back down while Tabackman did what he could to spare three years of her life.

What Tabackman had to do was somehow convince Sullivan that a crime of great heinousness deserved something other than the 18-year maximum—a term that seemed already light to many, given that it came a day after Bernard Madoff was handed a 150-year federal sentence for a fraud similar in nature if not scope. Tabackman's strategy was a combination of being perfectly direct ("She took the money of the District of Columbia when it was not hers, and that was a terrible things to do") and attacking prosecutors for their "demagogy" for pointing out, in their sentencing memo, all of the things that the city could have bought for the $50 million Walters and her accomplices stole—AIDS clinics, schools, so on.

After all, Tabackman pointed out, the District did run a sizable surplus many of those years. "They built a stadium!" after all. Surely no particular project went in need thanks to his client's pilferings?

"She has never tried to justify or excuse or mitigate in any way the seriousness of her conduct," Tabackman pointed out, and indeed Walters has taken full responsibility for her thievery. But the whole role of a defense lawyer at a sentencing is to justify in some way—to mitigate.

For instance, defending her record as a public servant: "Fact of the matter is, of all the units over there [at the Office of Tax and Revenue], when she was running it, it worked better than anything." Or her supposed munificence ("She said, giving away money helped me sleep at night"). Or describing how he became friends with his client. Or pointing out her "pretty complex psychological needs." Or laying out her drug abuse; how she once weighed 400 pounds and is "enormously insecure." Or contrasting her with the likes of Enron villain Jeffrey Skilling.

Walters herself, asked to make a statement, also was perfectly direct: "On Nov. 7, 2007, I accepted full responsibility for the part I played in the commitment of this crime....I stand before your honor in full repentance," she said in her soft Caribbean patois. "I made a decision not to lie anymore."

In the end, none of that remorse got Walters much anywhere.

Lynch, for his part, emphasized the scale of the fraud, and Walters' place in it at the "top of the pyramid." How she was "sophisticated"—a word he must have used a dozen or more times. How she "corrupted her friends...corrupted the Office of Tax and Revenue...corrupted a federally chartered bank...corrupted her family." How the investigation into her crimes spent untold manhours and government dollars. That sending Walters to jail for the full 18 years "sends an important message to those 34,000 people" working for the D.C. government.

And Lynch prevailed upon the notion that her years of punishment should equal her years of wrongdoing, dating back to 1989: "Eighteen years is something that has justice to it...There is a sense of justice here that someone who has corrupted out city for 18 years would have to serve 18 years in prison."

While Lynch made his arguments, Walters stared at the wall, then started writing notes to Tabackman.

Powerful arguments, but Tabackman and Walters, actually, did hit upon a mitigation that appealed to Sullivan: Walters' willingness to sit in a conference room for two days and explain to a panel of lawyers, accountants, and other investigators engaged by the D.C. Council, and explain exactly how she has able to perpetrate her fraud, across a span of time that Sullivan described as "shocking."

"Harriette Walters," Tabackman said, "helped them understand as well as anyone could."

Sullivan asked Walters at length about the information she provided and how it helped the city understand how she did what she did. At one point, the judge asked her to describe how investigators reacted to the information she provided. "They kind of sat back in their chairs, and said, 'Well...,'" she said

Walters' hometown cooperation apparently pulled on the civic heartstrings of Sullivan, long a resident of Shepherd Park.

Lynch, in his presentation, argued that the information that Walters provided the District investigators "was not materially different" from what she told the feds—the information that led to the plea deal in the first place. "That would be double-counting," Lynch argued. "It's a good thing; it's a nice thing...but it's not materially different."

Sullivan didn't buy that; he appreciated that his fellow citizen of the District of Columbia—his fellow corrupt, thieving, greedy, "extremely intelligent, extremely sophisticated" citizen—had helped make the city a better in the small way that she could.

For those two days helping District authorities, he knocked six months off that 18-year maximum sentence. And Sullivan, knowing this city's government all too well, acknowledged that it might not do much good.

"The scheming is not going to stop," Sullivan said. "It's going to continue."

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  • Brandon

    Can you get hair extensions in prison?

  • Angry Al Gonzales

    Bad Journalism 101, Mr DeBonis. (1) Sullivan had a third choice - reject the plea bargain. (2) The only way Walters could "make up" for her theft is to repay the $54 million she stole to the District.
    I stopped reading after those two fundamental errors. Go re-read some journalism books, or, better yet, read some good literature & stop making "factual" statements that have no basis in fact or reality.

  • Angry Al Gonzales

    The reason the thefts from DC will continue, as Sullivan acknowledges, is that (1) he was too big a coward to refuse this plea bargain; and (2) DC residents are too lazy, ignorant, & apathetic to do anything to run a city with any effectiveness. This of course is compounded by (3) snarky, ignorant "journalists" who misstate facts & cast the proceedings in an inane light, for entertainment purposes only, apparently, when in reality this was an egregious crime that deserved punishment to the fullest extent of the law.

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  • JayAre

    Angry Al, Are you a resident of the District of Columbia?

  • Angry Al Gonzales

    I am a resident of the District. This woman stole my money & should go to prison for life.

    Here's the math [for the analytically inclined]:

    Stealing $48 million over 18 years = Life in Prison.

    This woman didn't steal a loaf of bread to feed her child. She stole from children, she stole from old people, she stole from everybody. She stole millions & millions & millions of dollars, over an eighteen year period. She should never see a glimmer of freedom for the rest of her life.

    Normally I believe in leniency, but this woman is a career criminal & should be locked up for life. Instead she'll do [about] 12 years - $4 million per year, that'll encourage lots of imitators.

    State rights? There will be no local rule or state rights here until we elect the "state" prosecutor & we have a say in the "state" judges with no presidential involvement.

  • Q

    Angry Al, I agree with you here! Besides stealing from everyone she stole from the in we are trying to recoup monies NOW that were taken in the past. Everytime a Homestead Act exemption is removed or denied, folks will think of Harriet Walters. BTW, why is Natwar still here?

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  • Mike DeBonis

    OK, Angry Al, it's on!

    You're engaging in Bad Commenting 101; to wit: ignoring realities of the American criminal justice system in service of your (well justified) outrage. LL was and is fully aware that Sullivan could have rejected the plea deal. However--(a) that almost never happens; (b) that especially never happens at this late date in a case that encompasses 10 other pleas entered in this court and the Maryland federal trial court; (c) the plea deal is in keeping with federal sentencing guidelines, adjusted for the fact that Walters waived trial and cooperated with federal authorities; (d) rejecting this deal to impose a harsher sentence would open Sullivan to appeal on grounds of equity with other sentences handed down in this case and (e) rejecting the plea deal would risk having to actually try the case, or at least extend litigation, wasting more taxpayer money, possibly millions, to give her a few more years in jail---which is the reason the plea was entered in the first place.

    In other words, a rejection of the plea deal was so incomprehensible that LL would have been engaging in journalistic malpractice to even note the possibility!

    As for this being 'snarky,' 'ignorant,' and or 'inane'---there's a lot of other posts LL can point you to, but not this one. Thought LL played this one pretty straight.

  • 2b3s

    I second Mike. The only time a judge rejects a plea agreement is when s/he is grand-standing and/or politically posturing.

  • Angry Al Gonzales

    Touché, Mr. DeBonis, touché.
    Still, you could have offered a clause to show the third choice, something like: “or to reject the plea bargain & set a trial date.” Judges reject plea bargains occasionally, and doing so is not all that rare.

    As for my other comments, they were untoward & I apologize.

    As for the extra cost of prosecuting Walters, it would be minimal. As for 2b3s re political grandstanding, that supports my earlier point on how this is a home rule issue. If we had an elected prosecutors & judges appointed without Federal interference, politicians would naturally gravitate to those jobs. Hence, when the community demands more punishment, the “state” officials would listen.

    Meanwhile, the debacle in DC tax office continues. Now they’re sending apparently random refund checks to thousands of people, or maybe someone there is covering his tracks by mailing some random checks & some targeted checks to his accomplices.

  • Q

    Okay Angry Al, where's my random check? LOL! Maybe this is what Harriette Walters was talking about when she made her arrogant passing comment. Her remarks almost smack of Frank Lucas' portrayal in the movie American Gangster. Now Ms. Walters is turning "state's" evidence on others and teaching the feds how not to let this happen again.

  • James


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