A former legal secretary was sentenced yesterday to one year in prison for stealing more than $150,000 from accounts overseen by two Ellicott City lawyers for whom she worked between 1988 and 1993.
Daren Lynne Flather, 42, was ordered to repay money she siphoned from four accounts set up for elderly or mentally ill people, but Howard Circuit Judge Raymond Kane Jr. expressed doubt that she would ever come up with the money.
Flather's lawyer said the money was used to pay bills. The prosecutor contended that it was used for luxuries.
Judge Kane said he opted for the prison sentence, despite the prosecution's recommendation against jail time, to ensure a meaningful punishment for Flather and discourage others from carrying out similar crimes.
"If nothing else, we can deter others . . . who might have the temptation to steal funds that aren't theirs," the judge said.
Flather, of the 10300 block of Globe Court in Ellicott City, was sentenced to five years in prison, with all but one year suspended. She will be eligible for work release.
The judge said he will consider reducing Flather's sentence if she finds a way to pay a large part of the restitution. Her prison term is to start April 24, giving her time to make arrangements for the care of her two children.
Flather -- originally charged with 32 counts of theft, forgery and cashing forged checks -- pleaded guilty to three counts of theft in January. She could have been sentenced to up to 45 years in jail.
The thefts occurred while Flather worked for Bernard Taylor and Linda Sorg Ostovitz. Mr. Taylor is now a prosecutor with the Howard County state's attorney's office.
Ms. Ostovitz testified that Flather forged her signature, falsified letters and even concealed the death of one of her elderly clients to cover her actions. She noted that she was once charged with contempt of court after failing to respond to a court order regarding one of the accounts because Flather intercepted the document.
"What she did was devastating," Ms. Ostovitz said.
"I trusted her completely. That made her betrayals all the more difficult to deal with."
Flather, who wept through most of the hearing, told Judge Kane that she is sorry for her actions.
"I've done this, and I want to quickly as possible to right the wrongs," she said. "Not a day goes by that I'm not sorry for what I've done."
Flather, who is unemployed, was expected to pay a large part of the restitution before yesterday's hearing in exchange for a suspended prison term.
However, the only money she could get was from her mother, who offered to take out another mortgage on her home -- an offer Flather did not accept.
"In the end, taking the money from her mother would have been like stealing a second time," said Lee Ashmore, a Columbia attorney for Flather.
"She just couldn't do it."
Yesterday's hearing provided authorities with the first information about what Flather did with the money, some of which was shifted among the accounts to cover up the thefts.
Mr. Ashmore told Judge Kane that Flather used the money to help her and her estranged husband cope with a heavy burden of bills.
He said that Flather felt it would be easier to pay back the attorneys than confront her husband about their dire financial situation. Her husband was not charged or implicated in the thefts.
"All of these financial pressures were on Daren's shoulders," Mr. Ashmore said. "She didn't do it out of greed."
But the prosecution disputed the defense attorney's assertions.
"What I argue to the court is, where's the money?" said Assistant State's Attorney Clarence Beall III, a Carroll County prosecutor handling the case for the Howard state's attorney's office.
"I believe [the money] was spent on things," Mr. Beall said. "There's no evidence of a dire financial family situation."
Mr. Beall said the Flathers' bank records show they wrote checks to pay for season tickets to Orioles baseball games, memberships in a swimming club and a $350 limousine rental.