Tuesday, July 22, 2003

Embezzler gets year in prison

Co-owner of business pleaded guilty to $500,000 scam

By Ken Alltucker
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The co-owner of a failed Blue Ash land title company was sentenced Monday to one year and a day in federal prison for spending more than $500,000 of homeowners' money on items such as luxury cars and office supplies.

Brenda Privett, 50, also must pay $749,783 in restitution and serve three years' probation upon release from prison for her part in an elaborate scheme to raid escrow funds from customers of the Phoenix Land Title agency.

With slumped shoulders, Privett apologized before U.S. District Judge Sandra Beckwith but offered no explanation for the embezzlement that helped sink the now-defunct title company.

"I'd like to say I'm sorry," Privett said. "A lot of people were hurt by this. ... I've never been in trouble before, and I never will be again."

The one-year, one-day sentence stems from a plea agreement in which Privett admitted guilt to six counts of fraud, embezzlement and conspiracy. The sentence mirrors punishment meted out earlier this year to her former partner, Cathy A. Montesi.

Privett's lawyer argued that she deserved a more lenient sentence because she profited less from the scheme than Phoenix co-owner Montesi. Furthermore, Privett lacked a criminal history and is responsible for the care of her 80-year-old mother.

But Beckwith agreed with Assistant U.S. Attorney Amul Thapar's argument that both women shared equal responsibility in the fraud.

"This conspiracy could not have been pulled off without Ms. Privett's cooperation," Thapar said. "She is not a mule in this exercise. She is a leader."

Federal investigators say Privett and Montesi wrote checks exceeding $630,000 for personal and office use during a two-year period beginning February 1997. The money came from escrow accounts that were supposed to be used for home purchases or refinancings.

The duo covered the fraud through false or incomplete statements and documentation, and it was detected only after Phoenix's underwriter, Ohio Bar Title, launched an investigation into suspicious transactions.

Among the fruits of the duo's enterprise are leases on four luxury cars - a Porsche, Jaguar and two Mercedes.

They also secured a $150,000 loan from PNC Bank on the pretense of improving computer systems in anticipation of the change to the year 2000, yet they never intended to use the money for Y2K upgrades. The bank eventually foreclosed on Privett's home, which was used as collateral for the loan.


E-mail kalltucker@enquirer.com

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