Last week I wrote about the case of Kimberly Knight. She’s the treasurer who pled guilty to embezzling almost a million dollars from the Ann Arbor Amateur Hockey Association. Knight effectively wiped out the organization’s savings – including its scholarship fund, its down payment for a new rink, even its operating budget. And now the association is fighting for its very existence.
For most crimes, there are shades of gray, and two sides to the story. Not this time. On one side you have an all-volunteer organization that’s helped 20,000 kids play hockey since 1951.
On the other side you have a corrupt treasurer who methodically emptied almost a million dollars from the pockets of those kids who paid to play hockey. She pulled this off over a two-year period – hardly a spontaneous act. Then she gorged herself on diamond earrings, Escalades and expensive trips.
Knight claims she’s already paid back almost a quarter million. The association says she hasn’t paid back a cent. Hmm. Whom do you believe?
Before Knight’s sentencing, the probation department recommended she pay back $160,000 immediately, to keep the league afloat. Judge Melinda Morris agreed, but Knight asked for two more weeks to get the money together. Judge Morris said: Sure.
On Monday, Knight asked the judge if $75,000 – less than half of what the judge had asked for upfront – would be enough. Judge Morris said: Sure. But Knight still hasn’t paid a dime of even that amount, because she’s still “waiting for checks to clear.” I’m sure we can safely assume the checks are in the mail.
Am I the only one who gets the feeling the criminal is calling the tune here?
The rest of the sentence wasn’t much tougher. Instead of prison – or even work release or house arrest – Knight got parole. Instead of paying back all the money, she needs to write a check for only $1,500 every month. At that rate, with a meager 2.5% interest and no inflation, she will send in her last check when she’s 116 years old. Let’s hope she’s not a smoker.
The rationale for this is simple: If they put Knight behind bars, she can’t pay the money back. But given Morris’s sentence, she’s not going to anyway.
Which brings us to a central problem with embezzlement cases in general – and this one in particular. The old joke goes, if you owe the bank ten thousand dollars, they’ve got you. But if you owe the bank ten million dollars, you’ve got them. Apparently, the more you steal, the more power you have, the softer you can make your sentence.
You don’t have to be vengeful to expect more. It’s a question of who we’re looking out for: the criminal, or the kids? Since Knight became treasurer in 1999, enrollment has dropped dramatically from 1,200 players to just 500 now. The scholarship program is history, as is the league’s “learn to play” programs. The kids who used to get the most help, now get the most hurt.
Another judge in town takes a different approach. Tired of deadbeat dads not paying their alimony child support, he decided to call their bluff and put them in jail, every time, until they paid. It was amazing how quickly they all seemed to find the money they owed their kids. Problem solved.
Something tells me it’s pretty hard to burn through a million bucks with nothing to show for it. And if Judge Morris had the backbone to put Knight in jail, I bet you’d see Ms. Knight cutting a rather large check by lunch.
In coddling the criminal, Judge Morris sold out the kids. Which is a shame, because it’s from hockey that kids learn things like fair play and honor.
Obviously, Kimberly Knight never learned those lessons. Thanks to Judge Morris, she’ll never have to.
But the kids will – the hard way.
About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the New York Times, and ESPN Magazine, among others. His most recent book is “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller. Bacon teaches at Miami of Ohio, Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009. This commentary originally aired on Michigan Radio.