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Note to legal staffers: Do not steal money from judges. Note to law firms: Do not hire legal staffers you have defended in court for stealing money from judges. A small Virginia law firm learned that second lesson the hard way after a legal secretary stole more than $42,000 from the firm while on probation for stealing from a judge months earlier. The secretary, Anna Laura Howell, was sentenced to three years in prison by U.S. District Court Judge James P. Jones on Aug. 18 after pleading guilty in June to one count each of mail fraud and felony money laundering. The sentence was harsher than the 15 to 21 months called for under sentencing guidelines. “We argued at sentencing that a longer sentence was appropriate, largely because she started the unlawful conduct just six months after she was sentenced for the earlier crime,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer R. Bockhorst. “She took advantage [of the law firm] by using increasingly sophisticated schemes. We think the interest of justice was served. It sends a message that it’s not appropriate to steal from your employer.” Jones apparently agreed. “It’s an understatement to say that your conduct in this matter is truly hard to fathom,” the Bristol Herald Courier quoted Jones as saying to Howell during sentencing. Instead of learning a lesson from her earlier crime, Jones reportedly told Howell that she “learned how to be a better thief.” Howell’s legal troubles began in June 2007, when she pleaded guilty to stealing $16,000 from the office of Washington County, Va., Circuit Court Judge C. Randall Lowe. She had been a secretary in Lowe’s office since 2005, and would forge checks from the office to herself, according to court records. She was represented by attorney Daniel K. Read — one half of the Abingdon, Va., law firm of Jessee & Read — who brokered a agreement under which Howell pleaded guilty to 12 counts of forgery, uttering and grand larceny. She received a five-year suspended prison sentence and five years’ probation. Jessee & Read subsequently hired Howell as a secretary and bookkeeper, firing her last October. Attorney John E. Jessee declined to comment about the case or explain why the firm hired Howell after she pleaded guilty to stealing from Lowe’s office. Reports in the Herald Courier indicate that Howell had worked with Read at a firm during the 1990s. According to a federal grand jury indictment, between September 2007 and October 2008 Howell wrote checks from an unused attorney trust account, stopped payments on the checks, then redirected the funds for her personal use. The indictment cites $31,000 in losses to the firm, but Bockhorst said that the actual total was more than $42,000. In addition to the three-year prison sentence, Howell was ordered to pay more than $51,000 in restitution, which covers the amount stolen and the cost of an audit of the firm’s accounts, Bockhorst said. Howell is due back in court later this month for violating her probation.

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