The owner of a bankrupt Baltimore truck body company was ordered to pay $11,500 in restitution and was placed on 18 months' unsupervised probation yesterday after pleading guilty to 10 counts of writing bad checks to his former employees.
The sentence imposed on John F. Smith, 52, of Ruxton angered the 40 ex-employees sitting in Baltimore City Circuit Court, who called it " a slap on the wrist" and "an insult to working people."
"We didn't get . . . justice, and he's free as a bird without any jail time," said John Johnson, who worked 23 years for Duralite Truck Body & Equipment Co. before Mr. Smith locked the gates in December.
"It stunk. He only pays back the money he owed us," added Robert Simpson, president of the United Electrical Workers union Local 122 at the South Baltimore plant.
"Here's a guy who broke the law intentionally and got away with it because he's got money," Mr. Simpson complained. "There's two sets of law, one for the rich and one for the poor. It's an insult to working people."
Circuit Judge Kenneth Johnson told the courtroom observers that the sentence was consistent with the plea bargain agreed to by Haven H. Kodeck, the assistant state's attorney.
Mr. Smith, who paid himself $100,000 a year as Duralite president since buying the firm in 1986, was indicted in July on 24 charges of writing bad checks and three counts of felony theft.
He could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Workers said Mr. Smith probably owed them almost $100,000 in unpaid wages, union dues deductions and insurance premiums, but mostly for medical bills they were stuck with because he did not remit the insurance payments deducted from their modest weekly paychecks.
During yesterday's court hearing, Judge Johnson gave Mr. Smith three months to pay the restitution, which includes almost $4,000 in employee payroll deductions for premiums that he never remitted to CareFirst health plan.
"We'll be lucky to get back $600 each," observed Mr. Johnson, who faces $30,000 in uncovered medical bills as a result of an accident in November. "It was just a slap on the wrist for him."
The former Duralite workers said they plan to sue Mr. Smith to recover the medical expenses they thought were covered, along with other costs they incurred when he began bouncing payroll checks last fall.
"He caused a lot of hardship for people there, but there's nothing for them today," Mr. Simpson said.
Ex-employees also charged that the prosecutor, Mr. Kodeck, ignored the extent of their claims in arranging the plea bargain. "He did a very poor job," Mr. Simpson said. "He cut a deal and didn't even inform us." Mr. Kodeck did not respond to a request for comment.