A longtime secretary at Alston & Bird will serve three years in prison for embezzling more than $800,000 from the personal checking and credit card accounts of one of the law firm’s founding partners.

But Alston & Bird’s forensic accounting team has determined that secretary Francine Fonger did not siphon funds from any of the law firm’s accounts or those of its clients, according to an assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted her.

Alston & Bird managing partner Richard Hays was out of the state on business and could not be reached for comment. U.S. District Judge Thomas Thrash sentenced Fonger, 50, of Marietta on Oct. 26 following a guilty plea to mail fraud she negotiated last summer for embezzling $832,890 from G. Arthur Howell Jr.

Howell, who died at the age of 92 in November 2010, was a name partner of Jones, Bird and Howell, which merged with Alston, Miller and Gaines to form powerhouse law firm Alston & Bird in 1982. Howell also was a friend and law partner of celebrated Atlanta golfer Bobby Jones, as well as Jones’ personal attorney.

Thrash also ordered Fonger to repay $832,890 in restitution. Mark Giuliano, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Atlanta office, said Fonger’s embezzlement “was an extraordinary long-running fraud by an employee of a respected law firm.”

Fonger’s fraud was uncovered while Howell’s estate was in probate, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Alana Black.

The embezzlement of Howell’s funds lasted more than a decade, extending back to at least 1999, according to court documents and federal prosecutors.

“She’s a good person who did a very bad thing,” said George Koenig, Fonger’s attorney, after she was sentenced. “She gave in to temptation, but she’s accepted responsibility and acknowledged what she did and is ready to make amends.”

The family has civil litigation pending against Fonger in U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of Georgia, where Fonger and her husband last year filed for bankruptcy, said Howell’s son, Richard Howell, who attended the sentencing hearing. Because of the pending litigation, he said the family has “avoided any discussion of Ms. Fonger in the press.”

The estate also has sued Fonger in Cobb County Superior Court. Richard Howell said that Alston & Bird designated Fonger in 1990 as Arthur Howell Jr.’s assistant after he retired in 1989.

“Arthur Howell loved Alston & Bird,” his son said. “For the remainder of his life, in recognition of his past and continuing contributions to the firm, Alston & Bird provided him an office and assigned a secretary to assist him in his affairs, which were primarily personal.”

According to the criminal information to which Fonger pleaded guilty, the senior Howell often asked Fonger to assist him by paying bills on his behalf and handling light bookkeeping. Because of that, he provided her with blank checks from his personal checking account, along with his personal credit card number and information so that she could make purchases on his behalf.

According to federal prosecutors, as far back as April 1999, Fonger began using her access to Howell’s bank account and credit card to write checks to herself on his bank account and then depositing the funds in her own account. She also wrote checks on Howell’s personal bank account to pay her own creditors, according to the criminal information.

Then, according to federal prosecutors and Richard Howell, Fonger “engaged in a number of fraudulent and deceitful practices to cover her tracks.”

In 2010, the year that Arthur Howell died, Fonger’s annual salary was $71,372 according to the Fongers’ bankruptcy petition.
The Howell estate’s suit against Fonger in federal bankruptcy court claims that Fonger likely embezzled at least $1.2 million from Arthur Howell over the years she worked for him. Fonger used the stolen funds to pay for vacations that included first-class airfares and stays at luxury hotels and for monthly car payments and mortgage payments on her Marietta home.

AUSA Black said that Fonger would shred any checks or copies of those checks included in Arthur Howell’s monthly bank statements that involved payments she had made to herself or her creditors. She would then prepare summaries of Howell’s expenses, which she would supply to Howell’s tax accountant, Black said.

Black said that Fonger’s embezzlement was uncovered after Richard Howell, the estate’s executor, stumbled on a check with a payee “that seemed strange to him.”

That discovery eventually led to “a very, very comprehensive audit” by Alston & Bird’s accounting staff,” Black said. The audit showed that Fonger appeared to have limited her thefts to Arthur Howell’s personal account. “The law firm didn’t lose any money through her fraud,” Black said. “None of their clients lost any money. These were all Mr. Howell’s funds.”