Monday, November 20, 2017
Opinion

Daniel Ruth: It's tough to issue a sentence harsh enough for duo that bilked disabled people

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There's crime and then there is really, really sleazy crime.

And that brings us to Frank Pannullo, who will have the next two years sitting in a federal clink to ponder what a complete, dreadful, horrible human being he is. And if there is any miscarriage of justice here it is that Pannulo isn't facing even more jail time.

But we will have to accept the fairness of our system of punishment where we find it.

Pannullo, who is to accounting what the Donner Party was to navigation, was convicted in a federal court of diverting some $617,435 in Social Security payments from clients of the Hillsborough Association of Retarded Citizens, otherwise known as HARC.

For a long time HARC did some very good work in this community, enjoying a stellar reputation for providing much needed services and training skills to the most vulnerable among us. Indeed HARC's executive director Richard Lilliston was something of a Hillsborough icon largely credited with establishing HARC's image as a refuge for our most vulnerable individuals.

And then Frank Pannullo showed up. And before you could say "grifter," HARC was transformed into an agency of good will to an illicit ATM machine benefiting Pannullo, Lilliston and other executives.

Faced with a cash flow problem, Pannullo cooked up a scheme whereby clients of HARC signed over their Social Security checks, diverting the funds into an endowment account. Numbers were falsified on spreadsheets and clients with severely diminished mental capability were conned into signing over their Social Security deposits. And yet, Pannullo and Lilliston were able to sleep at night.

The scheme enabled HARC executives to enjoy hefty car allowances, pay raises and other perks — until the house of canards came crashing down.

During the federal criminal court proceedings, Pannullo was a star witness against Lilliston, detailing how the fix was in to shaft HARC clients.

For his part, Lilliston attempted to foist everything off on Pannullo, claiming he often didn't bother to even review the checks his financial guy put in front of him to sign. But willful benign neglect is not a defense.

Since the HARC debacle came to light, Lilliston attempted to make the argument that by industry standards for people who do the kind of work of an executive director overseeing an agency assisting the mentally challenged, he was woefully underpaid at a mere, stinking $125,000-a-year, as if that paltry amount somehow justified playing fast and loose with the books at the expense of at-risk people.

If Lilliston felt so financially unappreciated as executive director of HARC, he could have taken his yet unsullied reputation elsewhere for a better paying gig, instead of fleecing those who looked to him for protection and help.

That's the real crime here. That in the end, HARC clients somehow morphed from needy, trusting human beings into chumps to be preyed upon by greedy adults seeking to line their pockets.

In court, Pannullo expressed remorse and shame for his actions, which is often the case when one is facing federal prison time. But Frank Pannullo is a 70-year-old man who more than knew what he was doing when he began finagling Social Security money from HARC clients.

Lilliston, also 70, is up next to learn his fate after a jury quickly wasted no time in finding him guilty for his role in the Social Security fraud scheme.

How much jail time is enough? As executive director of HARC, the buck stopped at Lilliston's desk. Ultimately he is the responsible party for what went wrong, beginning first with hiring the smarmy Pannullo, who was not exactly a pillar of fiduciary integrity to begin with.

A reputation in tatters for betraying the trust of innocents, Richard Lilliston must now live out his days burdened with a reputation for being a thief and the yoke of convicted felon wrapped around his shoulders. There is no reprieve for that kind of self-inflicted wound.

Frank Pannullo got two years for his crimes. But Richard Lilliston was his enabler.

Whatever time in the slammer Lilliston receives from the judge, it won't be enough for the crime of first-degree hubris.

 
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