Judge Quashes Hope for Embezzler’s Reprieve

Clad in an olive-green prison uniform and noticeably thinner than the last time she appeared before Judge Anita Brody, 74-year-old Betty Shusterman needed the help of a walker to inch her way across the federal courtroom she'd navigated so many times before.

Eventually, she sat at the same defendant's table that she occupied during her four-week trial nearly two years ago, initially burying her face in her hands. It wasn't until after a day of testimony failed to yield a reprieve from her prison sentence that she slowly made her way to the back of the court and gently kissed her 77-year-old husband before being escorted from the room by a U.S marshal.

In May 2004, Brody handed down to Shusterman a 51-month federal-prison sentence – the minimum called for under the existing federal guidelines – for her role in defrauding Temple Sinai of Dresher, the Montgomery County synagogue where she worked as a bookkeeper for more than 30 years. Court documents outlined the elaborate forgery and bank-fraud scheme responsible for bilking the shul of some $1.3 million between 1993 and 2000.

Shusterman has been serving out her sentence since September 2004 at the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Conn.

It was only due to a bizarre legal twist stemming from a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling – allowing a re-examination of many sentences meted out under federal minimum guidelines – that caused Shusterman to reappear before Brody's bench. At the Aug. 12 hearing, Shusterman claimed that she was too infirm to serve jail time, and instead requested house arrest.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, based in Philadelphia, granted Shusterman the hearing before Brody.

It reasoned that, in light of the Supreme Court's ruling in January that sentencing guidelines were not mandatory, Shusterman was eligible for a re-examination of her sentence.

According to Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Zauzmer, Shusterman's co-conspirator – 48-year-old Barry Wilf, who was sentenced in October 2003 to 57 months in federal prison for his role in the theft – was not eligible for a new hearing.

Medical Issues at Hand
Shusterman's attorney, Elliot Cohen, contended that his elderly client was receiving inadequate medical care in prison for her chronic arthritis, glaucoma and heart condition. He also called her husband, Jack Shusterman, to the stand, portraying him as a man battling dementia and desperately in need of his wife's care.

Zauzmer, in turn, said that Shusterman had brought her troubles on herself. When called to the stand, the prison's medical director testified that Shusterman was indeed receiving adequate health care.

Among family members who asked the judge for leniency was 20-year-old Adam Shusterman, grandson of Betty and Jack Shusterman.

"I think I only remember seeing my grandfather cry once, which was at my Bar Mitzvah. Now, every time I see him, he's close to tears.

"It's just really hard to look at them like this," he said.

Another witness, Temple Sinai board member Barry Bressler, reminded the court that on top of the synagogue's financial losses relating directly to Shusterman's fraud, the congregation now finds it harder to raise funds from congregants.

"We do sympathize and feel for the Shusterman family, but I don't know if it overrides other concerns," said Bressler, who said monies from his late wife's memorial fund were among the cash stolen. "I'm glad I don't have your honor's job today."

But following the day's worth of testimony, Brody told Shusterman that her crimes were too serious to warrant a lighter sentence, and sent her back to prison for another three years.

Said the judge: "We can't give free tickets to anyone."



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