10 am, February 2003. New York, District Court.
“All rise for the Honourable Judge Richards.”
At the bailiff’s announcement, all rose. Judge Richards sat, perched a pair of glasses on his nose and said, “The defendant will state his name and occupation for the record.”
“Salvatore Guerrero. I am a minister at the United Methodist Episcopal church in Harlem.”
“Mr. Guerrero, you are indicted under federal law on six counts of financial aid fraud. How do you plead?”
“I plead guilty, your honour.”
Judge Richards nodded. “Is the prosecution ready to begin?”
“We are your honour.”
“Is the defence ready?”
“Yes, your honour,” Alejandro, my lawyer, rose and stated. “I wish to put on record that my client confessed and surrendered per ipsum* for his infractions. Therefore, he should be shown the leniency he deserves.”
“So be noted,” the judge instructed.
And thus began the most awaited federal trial of the decade – Salvatore Guerrero Vs the state of New York. It lasted almost nine months in which the US attorney’s office presented facts and corroborating evidence and demanded that I, for my role in defrauding the U.S. government, be sentenced to 100 months in prison and restitution to the tune of $ 1 million.
The fact that I did it for the greater good was not considered.
I concluded my free seminar and looked at the sea of hopeful faces clustered in the basement of the church. The ‘Burroughs community outreach program’ that I founded a decade back guided aberrant youngsters towards both education, and gainful employment. For an administrative upkeep fee of a mere $ 200 (provided in gratis to the needy), the youngsters could enrol in year-long program in which they received guidance in choosing colleges and also received help with the application process, essays, etc.
That was the easy part. The hard part was coming up with the tuition money. And, that was where I came in.
I would like to posit that I merely skirted the line of the law to assist the youngsters. But, that would be incorrect because what I did was to falsify family and financial data so that sophomores could qualify for college tuition loans granted by the U.S. government.
Yes, I committed fraud.
But, I did it to help the needy. I advised impoverished parents go move court and legally transfer guardianship of their wards to their grandparents. This qualified the wards for the financial grant in the eyes of the law as the grandparents had and could report a lower income on their financial aid forms. I had a few other kids move court to sever ties with their single parents. No ties meant the child was not dependent on the parent’s income and hence had no way to pay for tuition, thereby making him/her eligible for a government grant. There were many such cases, many instances wherein I came up with innovative schemes to defraud the government but only for the benefit of the needy.
Sometimes I did feel bad, especially when parents cried when I asked them to sever ties with their children. Being a pastor, at times even a niggling inner voice rose to confront me for my actions. But, I reasoned with it and suppressed it by arguing that maybe this was god’s plan for me.
What had initially begun as an informal college prep workshop in 1993 for Hispanic kids had magnified to encompass students from many ethnicities. Several families that I helped made less than $ 50,000 a year. Even if they could afford to send a kid to college, they had many mouths to feed and could scarcely afford annual tuition upward of $ 30,000 a year per child. It was simply out of reach for them. And yet, without the college education, their children’s prospects of ascending the social ladder were slim to none. It was a conundrum, one that my moral compass flicked over often. But, I had come from nothing. Everything that I was, I owed to interventions in my life by kind strangers and the church. The way I saw it, I was only giving back the kindness I had received. I was only doing God’s good work.
Or, was I? Some recent revelations had shaken my belief in both my work and the people that benefitted from it.
Today, as I stepped off the lectern, Alejandro caught my eye. Cocking his head towards my office, he indicated that I follow. Alejandro was my sister’s boy. He was a rising star at a prestigious East Coast law firm. A passionate purveyor of justice, he often did pro bono legal work for the church. A part of Alejandro’s misspent youth had been spent in delinquent activities. That was before he found his purpose in life. Truth be told, he was the one person in my life that I trusted and sought counsel from. He was the voice of my conscience, my mirror that always reflected the truth. Like a homing beacon, he fought to guide me to the safe harbour. I loved him like a son.
As I entered my office, Alejandro stopped pacing mid-stride. Agitation was writ large on his face.
“Tio* there are whispers in the DA’s* office,” he blurted, “They are bringing a case against you.”
“Aah! My day of reckoning commeth,” I sighed. I had known that my luck would run out someday. “I need to embellish this set of pending financial aid applications,” I nodded towards a stack on my desk.
“No, Tio, abandon it. The second the feds have concrete evidence, they will have you dead to rights. Don’t dally.”
“Mi Sobrino*, you worry too much. God is with us,” I said with false bravado.
“Tio, you have a good heart. But a crime, whatever the motivation, is still a crime if it breaks the law. Some of those you helped misled you with their sob stories. Haven’t we uncovered the evidence? If you get caught, they will not come to share in the repercussions, will they? Quit now Tio. I beg you.”
Alejandro made a compelling argument. If push came to shove, it was I who would get shoved under the bus.
A year back, a random audit of financial records of a few applicants who had benefitted from me had unearthed startling findings. I had been duped. Taking advantage of my benevolence, some of the applicants had falsified their family records which had led me to perpetuate the financial aid scam on their behalf. A more thorough investigation revealed that there were no less than 37 such cases over the past decade. These people had pretended to be impoverished and I in good faith had bent the law to get them the financial aid that they had never needed.
Alejandro had begged me to stop the program then.
Post this revelation; I had rued my decision to help them. Because of these few cases, there were probably 37 genuine kids out there who did not receive my help. What saddened me most was that I broke the law in good conscience for the ones who themselves embodied a bad one. The onus of my misdeeds started gnawing at my soul, robbing me of peace and sleep. For the first time, I averred that I was less of a saviour and more the perpetrator of a crime.
“Tio, we have a week to act,” Alejandro continued. “My source thinks that the feds will arrest you in public before Christmas.”
“Yes. They will move for a quick arraignment and remand you to judicial custody just before the holidays begin. This way, I can’t move the court for a bail motion till the holidays end. In the meanwhile, the feds will continue to build their case.”
With troubles eyes, I looked at Alejandro.
“We are out of time, Tio,” he said, his concern evident. “Turn yourself in now. I’ll cut you a deal with the DA. Today is Friday. Take the weekend, if you must but come Monday, you must do this.”
I nodded. He was right, as always.
Later that night, I sought the lord’s forgiveness – ‘keep your servant also from willful sins; may they not rule over me. Then I will be blameless, innocent of great transgression’*.
I was ready for the karmic payback of my misguided altruism.
10:10 am, February 2003. New York, District Court.
“Very well,” said judge Richards to the prosecution, “begin your opening arguments.”
The prosecutor rose to address the jury. “Ladies and gentlemen, today we shall present evidence to exhibit how a clergyman who swore a life of servitude to God, a man who the community looked up to for guidance was nothing but a petty thief.”
I cringed as I heard the words. I could not deny the grain of truth they carried.
“As the first witness, the prosecution calls Deshawn Holms.”
A lanky African American man, dressed in a dark suit was ushered in. He refused to meet my eye. I remembered the night I had met him for the first time. He’d been sixteen then, a gangly teen prone to keeping a bad company on the streets.
“Mah Deshawn gone and got mixed up with those bad boys. Now, I tell ‘im that no good ever gon’ come outta been a wastrel. But, do he listen to his mamma? No, he do not.” His mother, Tasha, had complained to me that night. “Knock some sense into ‘im reverend. Help ‘im get an education.”
The mother’s plight had tugged at my heartstrings. I had helped. Tasha had claimed to be a single, high school dropout mother, working two jobs and feeding five mouths. Alejandro later uncovered the web of lies she had spun. Both her family and financial status were misrepresented to me. She and her husband were a couple who could afford tuition. Their avarice had made them concoct the scheme to appeal to my charitable sense. It had worked.
Tasha Holms was not a lone example. But, she had been the first of all those who had duped me. When the other cases came to light, I had been crushed. Enervated, I had prayed, “Forgive me, Lord. I erred on my path of righteousness.”
An insatiable need to atone for my deeds arose in me which was compounded by my nephew’s sagacious counsel that I surrender before an arrest. Leaning heavily on his advice, I had done as recommended.
Alejandro did cut me a plea deal, a lesser sentence in exchange for full disclosure about the beneficiaries. They were, after all, all accessories before the fact. The feds were eager to indict them too. But, I refused to disclose any names except the 37.
Alejandro had begged me to reconsider. “Tio, you owe them nothing. Give them up. Think of yourself for once.” I had not budged.
The way I saw it, there was no need to disclose details of the genuine cases. They had not hoodwinked me. They had come to me in god conscience and sought help. As their shepherd, it was my duty to herd them and not throw them to the wolves.
The feds had threatened, badgered and coerced me but to no avail. Frustrated at my refusal, they had ultimately managed to subpoena 11 out of the 37 as state’s witnesses, in exchange for lesser sentences like community service and payment of minor fines. The rest had been indicted like me on charges of financial fraud or had got away scot-free.
The 11, when called upon to testify in court laid the blame at my door. I somehow became the perpetrator and they the victims, although they were anything but.
‘It was the pastor’s idea’, ‘he told us to do it’, ‘he suggested’, ‘we followed his advice’ and many more such allegations were levelled. Each betrayal hurt me deeply, cut me to the core. I despaired at the picture they painted of me until my Alejandro rose to cross -xamine, starting with Deshawn Holms.
“Mr. Holms, isn’t it correct that when she approached reverend Guerrero, your mother cited poor financial sustenance?” He asked. “And remember, you are under oath.”
Deshawn’s fidgeted in his seat, mumbling a, ‘yes’.
“And was that true?”
He shook his head.
“Is it not true that you intentionally misled reverend Guerrero, fed him falsehoods so he would help you get the grant?” Alejandro continued his attack. Deshawn swabbed at the beads of sweat on his forehead. “I say, it’s you who have defrauded the U.S. government, you perpetrated the crime and also duped the reverend.”
The prosecutor jumped up. “Objection your honour, the defence is badgering the witness.”
“Overruled, the witness will answer to his role.”
Caught, Deshawn had no choice but to admit his part in the scheme. He spilled all.
That was just the beginning. Post that, Alejandro like a hurricane making landfall, ripped into the testimony of all subsequent 10 state’s witnesses. He vociferously tore their morality to shreds. He attacked them on all and every possible front till the prosecution’s case lay in shambles.
Over the following months as the truth of my actions was brought to light, Alejandro parried and succeeded in firmly portraying me as a Robin Hood in the minds of the jury.
“Was the reverend misguided?” he argued, “Yes, he was. But were his acts criminal? No, I believe not. He did not do it for personal gain.”
Finally, after nine months, the case concluded.
12:15 pm, November 2003. New York, District Court.
“Has the jury reached a unanimous verdict?” Judge Richards asked the foreman.
“We have your honour.”
Alejandro and I stood up, as was mandated. Judge Richards read the verdict.
“Salvatore Guerrero, you are hereby found guilty on all counts of financial aid fraud. However, taking into account your remorse, you are awarded a maximum sentence of 41 months with eligibility for early parole. You are remanded to judicial custody and are hereby also directed to pay retribution amounting to $ 574800 to the U.S. Government.”
I sent up a prayer and breathed a sigh of gratitude. The verdict was better than I expected.
The fact was court verdict or not, I accepted that I was guilty of wrongdoing. My misguided altruism had been just that, misguided. My actions ensured that the public perception about me would forever be tainted. The only solace I had was the fact that the few edacious souls, who had duped me, did get indicted as accessories before the fact.
“Do you understand your sentence reverend?” the judge asked.
“I do your honour. My actions as a pastor were deplorable. I apologize.”
“We are human reverend. We all make mistakes,” the judge smiled. He gently continued, “I know that you had benign motivation but a crime, in the eyes of the law, is still a crime. Even if you are Robin Hood, what you did is still a crime*. You cannot split your morality to suit an occasion or instance.”
AUTHOR’S NOTE – This story is a work of fiction but I have drawn inspiration from the clergyman Dr Ozel Brazil, a man hailed as a real life Robin Hood who helped send more than 18000 youngsters to college by defrauding the US Government of grants and loans.
(This is an entry in ArttrA-4, a room8 writing game at ArtoonsInn. We’d much appreciate you rating the story and leaving a review in the comments.)
Tio – uncle in Spanish
DA – district attorney
Mi Sobrino – my nephew in Spanish
Keep your servant also from wilful sins; may they not rule over me. Then I will be blameless, innocent of great transgression – from psalm 19:13-17, in the bible.
Even if you are Robin Hood, what you did is still a crime – This statement is adapted from the original statement – ‘I mean, even if he is Robin Hood, it’s still a crime’ (sic), made by the judge at the trial or Dr. Ozel Brazil.
Cover image suggestion – Dr. Arva Bhavnagarwala
Story title suggestion – Sarveswari Sai Krishna