Unable to fight back sobs, Lisa Duda was led handcuffed from a Lucas County common pleas courtroom yesterday after being sentenced to two years in prison for stealing thousands of dollars from a local charitable organization.
A former employee of St. Paul's Community Center, the 39-year-old Temperance woman was tearful and shaken as she listened to her sentence. She had pleaded no contest last month to one count of aggravated theft.
As part of her plea, she agreed to pay back the $217,011.35 that she systematically stole from her former employer.
"This is not an isolated incident. It's something you did regularly," Judge Linda Jennings said of the series of thefts over a number of years. "You intentionally used your position … and took funds to support your drug habit."
According to the organization, Duda worked for St. Paul's for five years as one of seven people involved in the representative payee program. The program was created to help clients by depositing their money - typically Social Security checks - into an account and then using it to ensure that all their bills are paid, that they have spending money, and that they have reserve money for emergencies.
Duda was responsible for recording and managing the money for about 150 of the program's approximately 600 clients.
Attorney Rick Sanders told Judge Jennings before sentencing that Duda had a prescription drug habit and was "remorseful" for the thefts. Calling her a "good person," Mr. Sanders said the thefts started as a means to get money and that she had initially intended to pay the money back.
"I think she was overwhelmed by what she had done and didn't know how to get out of it," he said. "She's not just afraid, … but ashamed of what she's done."
St. Paul's Community Center, at 230 North 13th St., is a $1.5 million agency that offers assistance to those "who are impoverished due to mental illness or substance abuse issues."
Among the services offered is the Dwelling Place, a 12-apartment transitional housing complex, and a 30-bed homeless shelter. St. Paul's also serves 100,000 meals annually.
The organization's leaders said that since discovering the thefts, St. Paul's Community Center has made changes in its program. Anthony Thiros, president of the St. Paul's board of directors, said after the hearing that he was hoping to put the incident in the past and continue putting the organization back on track.
Mr. Thiros said he had submitted a victim-impact letter to Judge Jennings, saying that he wanted Duda to have a lengthy prison term not only for her actions but also as a warning for others.
"I want people to know that if you do this, there's a penalty to be paid," he said. "That's why I'd have liked to have seen the whole [prison sentence of five years]. But I take the sentence as it was given."
Mr. Thiros said that the funds have already been restored to those accounts, but that the organization continues to have to raise money to refund the areas from where that money had been shifted. He added that as time goes on, the organization's reputation and integrity are being restored.
As for Duda, Mr. Thiros said he hoped she uses her time in prison to better herself.
"Personally, I wish her the best and that she has an opportunity to think about what she did, the people that she hurt, the client that relied on her," he said. "I hope she makes good time of this. I really do."
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