Some of her victims think Coleman deserves more than 3 years in jail

Others want her free so she can work and pay restitution

September 12, 2002|By Julie Bell and William Patalon III | Julie Bell and William Patalon III,SUN STAFF

Victims of Monica L. Coleman's securities fraud scheme watched yesterday in a Baltimore courtroom as she was led off in handcuffs.

It was a sight that punctuated her prison sentence and seemed to speak of justice done.

But outside the courtroom, there was disagreement about whether Coleman's sentence - which will amount to no more than three years in prison - was just.

Even victims didn't agree.

One suggested that no sentence could ever repair all that had been lost. Another said the former Baltimore investment adviser needs to be out of jail and working so she can pay restitution.

"I'm shocked," said John Conelius, a former Columbia businessman who has said he lost more than $1 million in Coleman's schemes. "If she's in jail," he said, she can't do any good for anybody who lost money.

Even legal experts offered varying opinions, though they agreed on this: It's difficult to evaluate whether justice is served in any white-collar crime case. Sentences are dependent on factors ranging from a defendant's motivations to the impact of the crime on victims.

The degree of the defendant's remorse even goes into the mix.

"There's no question that there still is this struggle in the criminal justice system" over sentencing in white-collar crime cases, said Byron L. Warnken, a University of Baltimore associate professor of law. White-collar criminals often get lighter sentences than others - something he said appears to have happened in Coleman's case.

But, he added, "maybe the mentality is starting to change with all the corporate stuff going on," including accounting scandals at Enron Corp. and Worldcom Inc. and an insider trading scandal at ImClone Systems Inc. "We're starting to see white-collar guys can be bad guys."

Coleman - who launched the now-defunct investment firm Coleman Craten LLC in February 1998 - was sentenced to 15 years in prison yesterday, but 12 years of the sentence were suspended.

The sentencing is the latest chapter in a saga that resulted in her January 2001 indictment. The Maryland attorney general's office said at the time that Coleman misappropriated $2.6 million from clients and converted the money "to her own personal or business use, never investing [the funds] as she represented to her investors."

Yesterday, Warnken said a serial home burglar who took items worth far less might have gotten more time in prison than Coleman.

"If I stole $300 worth of stuff in each one of these houses, I'm probably going to wind up with quite a number of years for day-time housebreaking," he said. "I'm not going to have to steal $2.6 million; probably a couple thousand will do it."

Max Lauten, a Baltimore attorney and former chief of the criminal division in the U.S. attorney's office here, said a similarly charged defendant likely would have gotten a harsher sentence in federal court.

"What [Coleman's sentence] boils down to is a three-year sentence with 12 years hanging over your head," Lauten said, noting that Coleman could be forced to serve the remainder of the sentence if she violates parole once out. "In the state system, typically, she would be eligible for parole after one year."

But Lauten offered no opinion on whether Coleman's sentence was too lenient. And Robert J. Cleary, a former U.S. attorney in New Jersey and co-chairman of his New York firm's white-collar crime practice group, said it's tough to tell what's appropriate without considering all the evidence presented.

But several victims present at yesterday's sentencing hearing clearly relished watching Coleman being led toward the door in handcuffs. A small group of them had stayed in the courtroom well after Baltimore City Circuit Judge Roger W. Brown had left. When a sheriff's deputy brought Coleman's hands behind her, and clicked the cuffs around her wrists, some in the group smiled and nodded.

Several didn't wait for the hearing's conclusion to make it clear how they felt about their ex-stockbroker. They heckled Coleman as she gave a sobbing, rambling monologue to the court before her sentence was pronounced. Whenever Coleman commented on some bad luck, sarcastic jeers such as "boo hoo" or "awwww," could be heard among the spectators.

A couple of victims also took the stand and made statements. Jean Aziz was one of them.

Aziz and her husband, Shahid, of Columbia, filed a lawsuit in March 1999 seeking the return of their $765,000 investment at Coleman Craten LLC, plus $640,000 in interest.

Yesterday, Aziz was in the witness chair, only feet from the defense team table where Coleman sat flanked by her two attorneys. As Aziz labeled Coleman's entire venture a "Ponzi scheme" and recalled how the two families spent time together in a relationship Aziz thought was special, Coleman sobbed loudly into a handkerchief.

Even as the families shared special moments, "she was stealing our money," Aziz said of Coleman.

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