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Restitution often slowly paid when stolen money is lost in casinos

Jason Cato
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Ben Bartilson, 30, of McKeesport the former manager of four suburban Primanti Bros. restaurants, is accused of stealing more than $30,000 in February and gambling it away.
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Diane L. Stanesic, 60, of West Mifflin is paying off $36,000 she obtained fraudulently from an insurance company.
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Ira L. Johnson, 53, of Penn Hills received a sentence up to two years in prison for embezzling more than $700,000 from West Penn Allegheny Health System.
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Prosecutors accused Joseph Kocott Sr. and his son of defrauding business clients and spending more than $100,000 in Rivers Casino.
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Prosecutors accuse Joseph Kocott Jr. and his father of defrauding business clients and spending more than $100,000 in Rivers Casino.
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Lori Burleigh, 51, of Beltzhoover is accused of stealing more than $90,000 from accounts of elderly customers of Progressive Home Federal Savings & Loan Association.
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John Pushak, 64, the former Cecil police chief, is accused of using more than $10,000 in federal drug-investigation money to gamble.

Tethered to an addiction and tormented by what it was causing her to do, Diane Stanesic fired off a late-night email to an insurance company confessing that she’d been stealing from it by falsely claiming to have cancer.

Now she makes small monthly restitution payments to AFLAC in a plodding effort to put things right.

“It’s something I did, so I feel it’s only right that I make the payments,” said Stanesic, 60, of West Mifflin, who lost the stolen money playing slots at Rivers Casino on the North Shore and illegal video poker games. “I did wrong, and I’m doing my best to make amends.”

At $50 a month, it could take Stanesic nearly 60 years to repay her $36,000 debt. But she has paid the most court-ordered restitution of any defendant in recent cases the Tribune-Review examined in which people stole money from businesses and governments in Western Pennsylvania and gambled it away.

In the past four years, state and federal judges in the region ordered thieves who gambled away part or all of what they stole to pay nearly $3.5 million in restitution. The seven defendants in those cases repaid $4,115.41, according to court records. Stanesic’s payments were $1,665 of that. An eighth paid full restitution before sentencing.

Four cases are pending in which people are accused of stealing to finance gambling outings, including ones against a former Washington County police chief and a Primanti Bros. manager charged this month.

Officials say former Cecil police Chief John Pushak repaid the more than $10,000 he is accused of taking to gamble. Former Primanti Bros. manager Ben Bartilson, 30, of McKeesport is on the hook for $30,064 in deposits he allegedly gambled away in a casino.

In a case that didn’t involve restitution, a Washington County woman’s family repaid $195,000 taken from the Southwest Pennsylvania Legal Services Corp. — including at least $12,000 spent in casinos — before a federal judge sentenced her to 22 months in prison.

‘We are getting better’

“Restitution is a problem. It’s one of the most frustrating parts of the process for victims,” said Jennifer Storm, the state victim advocate. “The majority of restitution ordered in the commonwealth is not paid. But we are getting better.”

Companies and municipalities sometimes recover all or a portion their losses through insurance, Storm said, and judges order defendants to reimburse insurance agencies that pay a loss.

State judges, on average, ordered $145 million in restitution per year from 2010 through 2012, Pennsylvania court administrators report. Courts collected $35.3 million on average in annual restitution payments during the past seven years, said state courts spokesman Steven Schell.

That’s about a 24 percent collection rate.

The rate will rise over time, Schell said. Monthly payments often are for restitution and court fees; the fees are paid first, and then all money goes to restitution, he said.

“In this situation, payments five, 10, 15 and 20 years down the road will all go entirely to paying restitution,” Schell said.

Of the $87.2 million in restitution Common Pleas judges ordered in criminal cases in 2007, 27 percent has been paid, Schell said. Defendants have paid 98 percent of the $2.35 million magistrate judges ordered that year, he said.

A factor that could affect repayments is that offenders are behind bars, said Schell, referencing a 2013 report by the Office of Victims Advocate that found about one in three defendants ordered to pay restitution also went to prison.

Another factor may be that money lost gambling leaves no assets to seize to help repay the victim; thieves who buy cars and jewelry instead of lose the money gambling make it easier for courts to recover losses.

Money lost gambling may never be repaid, said attorney Phil DiLucente, who represented former Braddock secretary Ella Jones when she received nine years of probation in 2011 for stealing nearly $170,000 of municipal money. Much of the money was spent at Rivers and The Meadows Racetrack & Casino in North Strabane.

After Jones, 61, of Turtle Creek took more than a year and repaid only $30, Mayor John Fetterman and Braddock officials asked for jail time. Common Pleas Judge Jill Rangos put Jones in a halfway house for less than a year.

“She needs to be wearing a flame-orange vest picking up litter somewhere,” said Fetterman, still outraged. “People like her and others are getting away with putting their hand in the till. And why wouldn’t people do it, with sentences like these?”

Court records show Jones has repaid $344.70 since January 2012.

Messages left for her were not returned.

“She’s attempting to follow the judge’s order the best she can financially do,” DiLucente said. “She’s starting to make a good-faith effort.”

Casinos often unaware

If casino operators knew money was stolen, they wouldn’t accept it, said Sean Sullivan, vice president and general manager of The Meadows, where investigators said Pushak withdrew and lost money from an investigations account containing federal money.

“People make poor choices in life all the time,” said Sullivan, who noted casinos work behind the scenes looking for suspicious activity and often work with tax and law enforcement officials.

But if people steal, that is on them, he said.

“We don’t make it a habit of asking our customers what they do or how much money they make,” Sullivan said. “If he or she is embezzling money, that’s the issue. We like to believe 99.99 percent of our customers are good people. But once in a while, these people who’ve done bad things show up on our doorstep.”

Jason Cato is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at [email protected].

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