A Jacksonville woman who admitted stealing $428,874 from the Little Rock branch of the Plumbers and Pipefitters labor union while working as its office manager was ordered Friday to spend 2½ years behind bars.
Chief U.S. District Judge Brian Miller told Jeni May Hughes, 51, "If I could give you 20 years, I'd give it to you." But he said he was limited by federal statutes.
Miller said he was impressed by a contingent of union members, many of whom sat in the courtroom during Hughes' sentencing hearing and about 100 of whom signed a letter urging him to send her to prison.
Hughes pleaded guilty last May to embezzlement of union assets. Her attorney, Bill James of Little Rock, asked that despite the 24- to 30-month sentence recommended by federal sentencing guidelines, she be sentenced to probation or to a year and a day in prison. The extra day would give her a possible chance for early release.
James noted that Hughes was widowed in 2009 and has an 11-year-old son who lives with her and her mother, with an adult son of hers living next door. He said Hughes, a first offender, has "long suffered from depression" and has had a "long string of difficult relationships" that exacerbated the depression.
From a courtroom lectern, Hughes apologized as well, telling the judge that she knew her actions had affected the lives of union Local 155's members and their families, and then turning toward the members in the audience, saying, "I'm sorry to all of them. I care deeply for all of them."
But Miller seemed more impressed by a statement made by Ricky Jeu, the organization's business manager, who asked during his turn at the lectern to "give us a sentence I can take back to our members so that they will understand crime does not pay."
Jeu prefaced his remarks by telling Miller, "I do not take a great pleasure in having to discuss this, as she's been part of our union family."
But, he said, it was important to know that "we provide a lot of services to our union members and their families" and that the money Hughes siphoned out of the organization little by little over 11 years "was not for necessities but for luxuries, like swimming pools and campers."
Jeu also told the judge that the embezzlement "did not start when her husband passed away" and that, despite her crime, she will receive a "substantial pension."
Miller also heard from Assistant U.S. Attorney Alex Morgan, who argued for a sentence within the guideline range, citing the duration of the offense and Hughes' stealthy installation of malware in the union's computer system, beginning in 2005, to divert funds automatically to her.
According to the U.S. attorney's office, "On the eve of an outside audit in March 2016, Hughes abruptly tendered her resignation. In the weeks that followed, auditors gradually uncovered a $428,874.47 shortfall in union receipts. This prompted a formal Department of Labor investigation. It revealed that from January 2005 until her departure in March 2016, Hughes routinely failed to deposit Local 155's cash dues, instead diverting the funds into her own personal account."
In a letter to the court, union members said, "We are a local union made up of hard working men and women who are not looking for a handout. The money [Hughes] stole came from our members" and was intended to be used to "train all members, provide health insurance, and a pension. The same benefits we provided for her."
Miller told the courtroom that employers of embezzlers often argue against a prison sentence, but the letter he received from the members made important points, including that Hughes received full pay while she was away from work for six weeks because of surgery, that she never missed a paycheck after she hurt her neck by falling off a horse, and that it would have taken a union member four years to accumulate the amount of money she did.
The letter, he said, "impresses on me just how dirty this was. Dirty, dirty, dirty."
If it weren't for the sentencing guidelines, which recommended less than the maximum five-year term set by federal statutes, he would give her that, Miller said, adding, "I think you easily deserve five years."
Federal sentencing guidelines recommend penalty ranges within the statutory framework.
He also ordered her to make full restitution but cautioned the union members in the courtroom that in all probability, "Y'all are not getting that money back."
Metro on 01/20/2018