S&L; Fraud Sentences Average 3.2 Years : Thrifts: The Justice Department says federal cases in general typically draw 2.5-year terms.

From Associated Press

Virtually all those convicted of savings and loan fraud are first-time offenders, but they are getting harsher prison sentences than the typical white-collar criminal, according to Justice Department figures.

"These are traditionally no-record defendants," said Marvin Collins, the U.S. attorney in Dallas, whose office has prosecuted about a quarter of the major S&L; cases. "They appear often very contrite at sentencing and generally make sympathetic defendants for sentencing.

"Given all of that, I feel reasonably comfortable with the types of sentences that we have been receiving," Collins said. "Most of the people are receiving jail time."

There were 128 people convicted since Oct. 1, 1988, who received average prison sentences of 3.2 years, according to department statistics.

That compares to an average 2.5 years for all federal fraud cases, including embezzlement and forgery, according to a study compiled last year by the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics. That study used figures from 1987, the most recent year available.

The average sentence for embezzlement in 1987 was 1.8 years while the average sentence for mail and wire fraud was 2.6 years.

Thirty seven of those convicted for S&L; crimes since Oct. 1, 1988, have not been jailed.

The Justice Department defines a major S&L; case as one involving fraud or loss of more than $100,000 or in which the defendant was an executive or officer of a thrift institution.

Sentences have ranged from probation to the 30-year term given Woody F. Lemons, former chairman of the failed Vernon Savings & Loan Assn. near Dallas, earlier this year.

Lemons, who could have been sentenced to 65 years in jail, was convicted of 13 counts of bank fraud, misapplication of funds, conspiracy and bank bribery.

Other important sentences include:

* A 15-year prison term given to Robert Hopkins, former chairman of Commodore Savings Assn. in Dallas, for making illegal campaign contributions with the thrift's money and concealing the donations from federal regulators. He also was ordered to pay restitution of $122,980.

* The 12-year prison terms given to Oscar Tharp, president, and John O'Donnell, vice president, of First Mutual Savings Assn. of Pensacola, Fla., for conspiring to steal money from the S&L; through kickback schemes involving multimillion-dollar bank loans for Georgia real estate projects.

* The 12-year sentence that Julian Seidel, president of First Maryland Savings & Loan received for embezzlement by approving speculative loans. Losses to the Silver Spring, Md., thrift were estimated at $60 million. Senior Vice President James Porter received a seven-year prison term.

The average is brought down by a large number of defendants who are shown leniency in exchange for cooperating with federal investigators to help convict higher-level officers or executives.

"We always make cooperation known to the court" at the time of sentencing, Collins said.

"We want other people out there to distinguish between those people who are willing to cooperate and testify against others who have broken the law and those who want to thumb their noses at the system," Collins said.

Short prison sentences or probation were imposed on defendants in cases in which the fraud was not directly related to the failure of a thrift institution, Collins said.

Because most of the S&L; crimes occurred before new government sentencing guidelines took effect, those serving time will become eligible for parole after serving a third of the prison term, minus good time.

By comparison, many of the defendants convicted in the Justice Department's investigation of Pentagon procurement fraud--nicknamed "Operation Ill Wind"--were sentenced under the guidelines, which do not allow for parole.

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