By Sharna Johnson: Freedom New Mexico
CLOVIS — Calling Lori Howard a “crook,” District Judge Teddy Hartley sentenced the 40-year-old former Eastern Plains Council of Governments (EPCOG) employee to 10 years in prison Wednesday after she admitted stealing $145,000 in tornado victim relief money.
Howard pleaded guilty to 72 counts of embezzlement and fraud and faced a maximum sentence of 135 years in prison.
Her face remained expressionless as she was handcuffed and led from the courtroom. Her family sobbed, her oldest daughter’s hysterical wails filling the air.
During sentencing, Hartley told Howard in some ways his sentence was, “too light.”
“The hallmark of your greed is the dishonesty … the money was intended for the use of people that had been harmed by circumstances beyond their control,” Hartley said. “You’re a crook; you’re a thief. You’re an underhanded thief.”
During a morning sentencing hearing, District Attorney Matt Chandler told the court how Howard began filling out fraudulent applications for housing assistance money in the days after the March 23, 2007, tornado that destroyed dozens of homes in Clovis and killed two elderly residents.
Chandler said she also took money intended to help teen parents.
Chandler said Howard used identities of people in the community who had received assistance before and using a fictitious name, set herself up as a landlord.
She received numerous checks for nearly a year, he said, which she deposited into personal bank accounts.
She created false applications 33 times, he told the court.
Once she received payment, Chandler said she went on a shopping spree that included cosmetic surgery, a Ford Expedition, new furniture, vacations and trips to places such as Las Vegas, Nev., regularly got expensive manicures and pedicures and paid off debts.
“She just went on this spending spree for Lori Howard,” he said. “It wasn’t about the people that were out shoveling debris… She’s a con artist judge. She’s going to con this court today.”
Because of her acts, Chandler said programs from entities such as Housing and Urban Development and the New Mexico Finance Authority pulled their funding from EPCOG.
“They’ve lost all money (for the programs). Hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars of funding to this community was cut off,” he said.
Chandler asked the judge to sentence her to 11 years.
Gregg Williams, economic development director for EPCOG, asked Hartley for the maximum sentence and addressed Howard during a statement to the court.
“Lori Howard is a thief, a manipulator, a liar and a coward,” he said, choking back tears. “You’ll never know how much damage you’ve caused; we trusted you. You put our jobs in jeopardy, you put the community in jeopardy, you stole from us.”
Howard told the court she stole the money because she wanted to provide for her family after she suffered two heart attacks and thought she was going to die.
“I stand here today so very remorseful and ashamed. To say I am sorry is too simple,” she said tearfully.
“I didn’t act out of greed, I acted out of desperation … I know that God and my friends and my family have forgiven me — I haven’t been able to forgive myself.”
Several people spoke on Howard’s behalf, including her three children and Counselor Charlotte Farkas, who has been treating Howard since December 2008.
Farkas told the judge Howard suffers a serious case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from surviving two heart attacks, a sexual assault and her daughters being victims of assault and thought taking the money was the only way to provide for her family when she died.
Hartley asked Chandler if there was any evidence Howard saved money for her family in the event she died.
“She didn’t save a penny. She spent that money faster than she embezzled it,” Chandler said, telling the court Howard spent so much money, so carelessly, she had insufficient funds in her checking account at the end of each month.
Following the hearing, Williams said he was satisfied with the sentence even though it was not the maximum he had asked for.
“I think it’s fair,” he said. “Justice was served. It’s one of these no-win situations.”
Chandler said as a condition of her parole, she will be required to pay full restitution of the money she stole.