Crime and punishment: Law firm embezzlement case shows it’s hard to please everyone

Amanda Elizabeth Michel (Al Cannon Detention Center)

On one side was an admitted embezzler and doting mom struggling with a recent cancer diagnosis.

On the other was a betrayed victim and former longtime employer, a Mount Pleasant lawyer who had treated her like family.

One pleaded for leniency. The other asked for justice.

The guilty party is Amanda Elizabeth Michel, 35, who now goes by Amanda Shealy. She was in federal court in Charleston for sentencing Wednesday.

Shealy acknowledged that she siphoned off money for years while working for attorney Mark Mason and his Mason Law Firm, even after she learned he had tapped into his savings and put his home at risk to pay employees when times got tough.

“I’m not the person I was back then,” she told District Court Judge Richard Gergel, sobbing. “I was lost and broken.”

Shealy turned to Mason and she was “truly sorry, and I’ll live with this shame for the rest of my life.”

It all made for an emotionally charged hearing. It also offered a glimpse into what judges face when deciding a fair punishment for a serious first-time offense.

Shealy’s family and her current employers pleaded for a combination of restitution and home confinement for the sake of her health and her 2-year-old daughter. Her lawyer said she has learned her lesson.

“We need her here, your honor,” said Val Brown, Shealy’s father.

But Gergel fretted about the message a lenient sentence would send in this case, saying “there’s got to be accountability.”

“This was a methodical, long-standing financial crime,” he said.

A grand jury indicted Shealy a year ago on four counts of wiring embezzled money from Mason Law Firm’s bank account to hers. She spent the proceeds on various personal expenses. The James Island High School graduate pleaded guilty in February. Prosecutors dropped three of the counts Wednesday.

The outcome of the sentencing seemed to turn, in part at least, on a no-holds-barred “victim impact statement” from her former boss. Mason employed Shealy from 1997 to 2010.

“During this time, my firm treated her very well,” the veteran attorney said.

Mason said he took a chance by giving Shealy a receptionist job. At the time, she had been selling perfume in a local department store.

“Despite her lack of experience, we took Amanda under our wing. We nurtured her. We trained her,” said Mason, who offered her medical benefits and would later pay for her second wedding.

Shealy worked her way up to legal assistant and then to office manager. Along the way, she was entrusted with access to the company checkbook and bookkeeping system.

“She violated that trust,” Mason said.

While the actual figure is in dispute, he estimated that Shealy took more than $224,800 between 2003 and 2010 by forging his name on dozens of bogus checks and by manipulating the accounting system to cover her tracks.

“However, the impact of the theft has been much greater,” he said.

Mason noted the recession that rocked the business world in 2008. He said he had to take drastic measures to avoid letting Shealy and other employees go during those lean years. He withdrew savings, took out a loan against his home and dipped into his retirement fund.

“She stole from me and the firm when she knew my personal savings were being depleted,” he said.

Also, she continued to embezzle while he was paying for his oldest daughter’s cancer treatments, Mason said, his voice breaking.

“This was, in fact, during the period she stole the most money,” he said.

When asked by Gergel, Shealy said she knew Mason had been borrowing money for the firm and that she also was aware of his daughter’s illness. She also said she lost track of how much she took.

Gergel did not ask Shealy why she stole. In a court document, her attorneys said her criminal behavior began amid a “bad” first marriage.

“Despite an appearance of normalcy at work, it was during this difficult period of time for her emotionally that Amanda began writing more checks to herself than she was entitled to from The Mason Law Firm account,” according to the memorandum filed last week.

Then, her second marriage failed.

“With her personal life in disarray, Amanda’s decisions at work writing checks to herself ... caused everything to spiral out of control,” her lawyers wrote.

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Gergel said he was “troubled” that Shealy made no effort to contact Mason to either express remorse or to offer to repay some of the money until Wednesday’s hearing.

“I’m struggling with this,” the judge said.

Gergel pointed out that Shealy, who is happily remarried, is employed.

“Obviously, she doesn’t have the resources to pay $128,000 back,” he said. “But not a penny?”

Defense attorney Gregory P. Harris said he had advised her not to contact Mason while charges were pending.

Harris asked for home confinement for Shealy, as did her other supporters in the courtroom Wednesday. She now lives in Lexington County.

“She has a lovely child, and she adores that child,” said Vanessa Overbay, a lawyer in the Columbia firm where Shealy works as a paralegal.

Overbay also vouched for Shealy’s strong, cheery work ethic despite the “overwhelmingly stressful events in her life.”

On top of her legal issues, Shealy was diagnosed in July with a form of blood cancer called follicular lymphoma. Her long-term prognosis is uncertain.

A sentencing report called for Shealy to serve 21 to 27 months. Assistant U.S. Attorney Dean H. Secor said a term of home confinement could satisfy the incarceration requirement if Gergel chose that as punishment.

He didn’t. Saying he had weighed all the circumstances — and certain he wasn’t about to “make anyone happy” — Gergel sentenced Shealy to a year and a day in a yet-to-be-determined prison, where he assured her will get treatment for her illness. He also ordered her to repay Mason $128,748.

“I believe it’s a very serious offense,” Gergel said afterward.

Gergel then informed Shealy that she has 14 days to decide whether to appeal.

Reach John McDermott at 937-5572.