Edith’s Cornucopia

corucopiaChesterfield County, Virginia resident Edith Harris liked to live large, spending $2,600 on Jimmy Buffett tickets; $12,586 for iTunes; $13,777 for computers, iPads and cellphones; and $26,545 on cosmetics. But none of the money was hers.

She stole it in a calculated embezzlement scheme from employer Virginia Physicians for Women, a well-known obstetrics and gynecology practice in the Richmond area.

In a protracted legal effort to recover the $901,978 the former billing specialist took over five years, the convicted embezzler at one point agreed to provide an itemized list of how she spent the stolen funds. “It’s very difficult to swallow,” Midlothian attorney Mark C. Nanavati testified in Chesterfield Circuit Court of Harris’ list of extravagant expenses. “It’s difficult for everybody in the (medical) practice to see this.” Nanavati, who worked for more than a year to recover whatever funds may be left, ticked off some of the items: $8,250 for University of Virginia football season tickets, $2,000 for U.Va. basketball season tickets, $1,250 for U.Va. baseball season tickets, and $4,400 for a trip with her kids to the Chick-fil-A college football bowl.

And that was just a small sampling, as Chesterfield prosecutor Robert J. Fierro later pointed out. He introduced into evidence a three-page, typed list that Harris said accounted for much of the money she stole from the practice beginning in 2010. Other expenditures included $3,285 for a Williamsburg shopping spree with her kids, $19,750 in Christmas gifts, $8,250 for Broadway in Richmond season tickets, $21,500 for a new Florida room, $22,590 for the hair salon, and another $8,190 for the nail salon. But even that wasn’t all: she deposited tens of thousands of dollars into accounts for three of her children to use as spending money. One son received $83,666, another $52,590. She also bought three of them vehicles — a car, a truck and a scooter. When asked on the witness stand why she stole, Harris hesitated and then replied: “I can’t help it,” apparently referring to earlier testimony from a licensed clinical social worker who said it appeared Harris suffered from an impulse control disorder, perhaps kleptomania. “I needed the money … and it was there, Harris added. “And it became a habit.”

But Fierro largely dismissed the notion that she was compelled to steal the money. “This is not a crime of impulse,” the prosecutor argued, but one of lawless calculation. “The scope of what she did is immense” — not only in the amount of money she stole but how she carried out the scheme, Fierro said, urging Judge T.J. Hauler to send her to prison. Harris pleaded guilty in May to five counts of felony embezzlement. The judge rejected defense attorney John McGarvey’s plea that Harris be placed in a diversion program, undergo mental health treatment and/or receive home incarceration. Instead, he sentenced her to 50 years in prison with all but five years suspended. Hauler then stayed execution of two years of the five-year active term, giving her three years to serve. State sentencing guidelines called for a prison term of between two and five years. Hauler also ordered Harris to make restitution of $849,114.44.  Ronald Milligan, Virginia Physicians’ chief operating officer, testified how the theft “tremendously impacted” the practice on many levels, including the $100,000 that was spent on various fees to investigate and correct the damage Harris did. In reconciling the practice’s books, more than 3,100 patient accounts believed to have been affected by the theft had to be individually reviewed, he said. Harris’ 2,687 separate acts of embezzlement forced the practice to cancel merit raises for employees and eliminate the chief financial officer’s position. “It affected salaries, who we could hire and who we can’t,” Milligan testified. Morale plummeted among the practice’s 30 physicians and 130 staff employees at six local offices. They felt “betrayed and manipulated,” Milligan told the court. The practice received angry calls from some patients affected by the theft, and likely scared away new or potential clients by the bad publicity, he said.

Harris diverted practice funds to credit cards and bank accounts held by her and family members from July 2010 through June 2015, Fierro said. She was responsible for making reimbursements to the accounts of patients who overpaid for services while under the care of Virginia Physicians. Prenatal patients, for example, would make monthly payments that Virginia Physicians estimated they would incur for medical treatment during their pregnancy. But if it was later determined those patients had overpaid, Harris would divert the excess payments to herself instead of reimbursing the patients, Fierro said. When someone did inquire about an overpayment, Harris would issue a refund and shift money around to cover her tracks, authorities said. Nanavati testified that Harris ignored or delayed his efforts on behalf of Virginia Physicians to recover what remained of the stolen money, and he was forced to spend $22,098 to collect $74,942 during the last year. “It was a fight every step of the way,” he said. After filing civil suits and initiating other legal maneuvers, Nanavati eventually got Harris to concede she took $901,978. But to collect, the attorney had to track down her assets and accounts and garnish some of her holdings. Nothing was surrendered voluntarily, he said. The attorney alleged that Harris moved $61,596 from an investment account just days before he served papers to garnish the money. He got 34 cents. “It was beyond me what we had to do to get her to accept” that she was responsible for paying back the stolen funds, he testified. There was no apology or remorse, or effort to make any payments of any sort. “It was shocking to me.”

Mark O’Shea, the clinical social worker who Harris began seeing eight months after her arrest, testified it was his professional opinion that Harris had developed an obsessive compulsive disorder that may have been caused in part by a pituitary gland tumor that was surgically removed years earlier and feelings of neglect as a child by her father. “I feel like something happened that was never fully addressed,” O’Shea said, adding she stole money from her employer to “feel better, which was woefully inadequate.” She was out of control, much like an alcoholic, he said. But Fierro argued that Harris didn’t seek out treatment until eight months after her arrest and that her calculated theft wasn’t the same as a kleptomaniac who shoplifts for reasons other than financial gain. The prosecutor also noted that Harris didn’t learn any lessons from her misdemeanor conviction in 2006 for welfare fraud. “The keys were given to her back in 2006, and this is what she did with it,” he said.