Shopper-addiction defense keeps woman out of prison

Judge calls $500,000 debt attempt to `self-medicate'

May 25, 2001|By CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CHICAGO - A Chicago woman who stole nearly $250,000 from her employer to finance a shopping addiction has been spared from prison in a novel ruling by a federal judge who found that she bought expensive clothing and jewelry to "self-medicate" her depression.

Elizabeth Roach racked up $500,000 in credit-card bills, buying a purse for $9,000, a belt buckle for $7,000, hundreds of designer outfits and dozens of pairs of shoes, according to court records.

Lawyers for both Roach and the government said they believe the ruling Wednesday by U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly marks the first time in the country that a federal judge reduced a defendant's sentence because of an addiction to shopping.

Roach faced up to 18 months in prison under federal sentencing guidelines. But Kennelly granted the defense what is known as "a downward departure," ruling that Roach suffered from "a diminished mental capacity" that contributed to the commission of the crime.

Kennelly sentenced Roach to five years' probation, six months of weekends confined to her home on an electronic monitor, and six weeks in a Salvation Army work-release center.

"You're going to be spending your vacation this year and next year at the Salvation Army center," the judge told Roach, 47, who is employed as a $175,000-a-year consultant.

Kennelly also fined her $30,000, ordered her to continue psychiatric counseling and forbade her from signing up for new credit cards or incurring additional debt without his permission. The judge said there was no merit to sending Roach to prison because that would only disrupt her therapy.

Roach made no comments in court but, during a hearing last week, apologized for her actions.

In a long decision from the bench, the judge said he found Roach's chronic depression "the driving force" behind her thefts.

She tried to "self-medicate" by compulsively shopping and then padding her expense accounts at work to conceal huge shopping bills from her husband and others, the judge said.

Roach didn't even wear much of the clothing and jewelry. She hid them from her husband for weeks and then - because she was unable to return them to stores - she sold them to resale shops and pawnbrokers at a fraction of their value, according to her attorney, Jeffrey Steinback.

By selling stock given to her by her grandfather and putting a second mortgage on her condominium, Roach has paid full restitution to her former employer, - Andersen Consulting, now known as Accenture - Steinback said.

In pleading guilty to a single count of wire fraud in June, Roach admitted she stole $241,061 over three years, mostly by falsely claiming to have attended out-of-town conferences, putting in for expenses and receiving reimbursement for air fares the company had already paid.

According to Steinback, compulsive behaviors, particularly addiction to gambling, are increasingly being taken more seriously by federal courts at sentencing.

Federal sentencing guidelines, however, forbid defendants who abuse drugs or alcohol from qualifying for downward departures.

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