Tuesday, March 25, 2003

Sentencing today in Epling case

Florence mayor to attend hearing

By Jim Hannah
The Cincinnati Enquirer

BURLINGTON - Florence Mayor Diane Whalen may speak at today's sentencing of the city's former finance director who pleaded guilty last month to embezzling $2.8 million of taxpayer money.

Ronald Joseph Epling could be sentenced by senior Judge Stan Billingsley to a maximum of 20 years in prison, but he would be eligible for parole after serving 20 percent of his sentence. That's four years.

"If there is any inclination he might be given less than the maximum of 20 years, I would like to speak at the sentencing," Whalen said.

"Every person who owns real estate in Florence, works in the city or operates a business here has been victimized by this theft and deception."

As prosecutors were still trying to tabulate the total amount stolen during the 15 years Epling presided over the city's finance department, the 51-year-old stunned observers by pleading guilty to 35 counts of theft totaling $2.8 million. Investigators believe the actual amount stolen is closer to $4.9 million.

Whalen disagrees with an argument that the court should sentence Epling to something less than the maximum because he has no prior criminal history and his crime was victimless. Whalen said the only reason Epling doesn't have a prior criminal history is because he craftily avoided being caught for more than a decade. She said every taxpayer in Florence is a victim.

The sentencing, scheduled for 9 a.m. in the new Boone County Justice Center, could be delayed if Billingsley rules in favor of a defense motion to defer state prosecution. Defense Attorney Burr Travis of Florence wants to defer the sentencing hearing until Epling's case is heard in the federal system. Although no federal charges have been filed, Travis said his discussions with federal prosecutors lead him to believe they will be.

It is unclear what charges federal authorities might be considering, but it is likely the penalty for embezzlement or money laundering in federal court would carry a harsher sentence than the equivalent charges in state court. The federal system no longer has parole or early release programs.

Officials with the U.S. Attorney's Office in Lexington did not return phone calls.

Epling is accused of stashing away miscellaneous checks written to the city, a state police detective has testified.

Authorities said Epling would then improperly deposit those checks in the city's capital improvements account.

The accountant then spent the money, in part, on gambling trips to Las Vegas and houses for his live-in girlfriend and his estranged wife, authorities have said.

E-mail jhannah@enquirer.com

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