Column: The Criminal Calls the Tune

Hockey club embezzler doesn't pay the price for her crime
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

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.


  1. By Duane Collicott
    August 28, 2009 at 9:25 am | permalink

    Good article, John. The lack of jail time in this case is disgusting, and is only going to encourage the next embezzler. One side affect of this story is that I am now going to learn more about Judge Morris, her record, and whether or not she is an elected official.

  2. By Ann Curtis
    August 28, 2009 at 9:38 am | permalink

    As I’ve followed this story, the cast of characters has always been portrayed as simply Knight, the legal system, and “the kids.” But I’m curious to know exactly what was going on with the executive board of the Amateur Hockey Association during the time Knight’s hand was in the till? Where was the oversight? I can imagine somebody embezzling $1 million from a large corporation over the course of two years without somebody noticing, but from a small community group like the AAHA? To me, this is a “micro” example of what’s problematic about so many boards, from Enron down to our own community organizations. People want to participate for the prestige and the social advantages, and are only interested in easy decisions. Nobody wants to roll up their sleeves to ask the hard questions, resolve the difficult issues, and rock the boat. (Now that I think of it, that describes our politicians pretty well, too. At least until this year – I’m an optimist!)

  3. August 28, 2009 at 11:00 am | permalink

    The reader is correct that it’s the responsibility of AAAHA — or any organization — to provide appropriate oversight. They’ve acknowledged this, and have since corrected the problem. (I would have mentioned this in the original piece, but space is very tight, and I assumed it went without saying.)

    I still think it’s much easier to steal from a volunteer-run, non-profit organization than a corporation, which can pay full-time professionals to oversee all the work. As I wrote in my piece last week, what makes such non-profits great — the volunteers – is what makes them particularly vulnerable to the con artists like Kimberly Knight: it’s not full time work for them, and a certain level of trust and decency is assumed.

    I can obviously not speak to the question of why most people join boards, but knowing many AAAHA board members over the past two decades, you’d be hard pressed to find any with ulterior motives — e.g. prestige or social advantages, let alone power. They tend to be parents who simply want the whole thing to work for all the kids, not just their own.

    And like you, despite all the evidence before us, I remain an optimist about human nature. As Martin Luther King Jr. famously wrote, the arc of history bends toward justice.

    -John Bacon

  4. By anon
    August 28, 2009 at 11:52 am | permalink

    Steal a little and they throw you in jail, Steal a lot and they make you king. – Bob Dylan

  5. August 28, 2009 at 11:59 am | permalink

    If anyone wants to start a petition recalling Judge Morris, I’m ready to sign.

  6. August 28, 2009 at 12:01 pm | permalink

    I brought my 14 year old son to Ms. Knight’s initial sentencing hearing on August 8th.

    Prior the conclusion of Ms. Knight’s appearance an African-American man was brought before Judge Morris who plead guilty to the crime of attempted robbery. This man did not use a weapon – he simply told his victim “I won’t hurt you if you give me your purse” – and did not get the purse. Judge Morris told this man that under Michigan law he was now facing life in prison. This man’s only ally was a dedicated public defender as Judge Morris walked him through his allocution.

    My son could not help but be shocked that Ms. Knight, whose appearance immediately, was not likely to face any immediate jail time despite her over $1.0 million theft because she committed a white collar crime. From the perspective of anyone who was listening in the Court that day, the dramatic difference vividly justifies the complaints that many have with our courts and the injustice which is done there.

    I wonder what my son’s comments would have been if he had been in Court on August 24th? After spending 25 minutes of the Court’s time and agreeing to an immediate repayment of $75,000 as a condition of sentencing, Ms. Knight’s attorney told the Court that it couldn’t cash Ms. Knight’s check because “we need time for all the checks to clear.”

    Rather than remand Ms. Knight to custody, Judge Morris gave Ms. Knight 10 days to come up with the money. I wonder what my son would have thought. I wonder what would have happened to the man who is facing life in prison for attempting to steal a purse with $30 in it would have said? The logic of not sentencing Ms. Knight to an immediate and lengthy jail term is certainly lost on all three of us.

  7. By Joan Lowenstein
    August 28, 2009 at 3:54 pm | permalink

    Parole is conditional — if you don’t meet the requirements, you go to jail. I assume Judge Morris wanted to see if the money could be paid back before sending the embezzler to jail and completely eliminating any possibility of payment.

  8. August 28, 2009 at 9:45 pm | permalink

    I’d be very interested to hear Judge Morris’ rationale for letting Ms. Knight go free. Would she also let Bernie Madoff off? Barring a sensible answer from the judge I’d be happy to help fund a recall petition.

  9. By David
    August 29, 2009 at 9:16 am | permalink

    It is sad to see her get away without any jail time or other reprecussions except for an attempt to give back what is not hers. If there is any solace for the AAHA, they can realize this is not a unique situation in the US. Politicians and other folks in positions of power are constantly stealing from the public. We only have to look as far as Detroit to see many examples of this. You can also go to other cities such as Albany, NY, Chicago, IL, New Orleans, LA, etc to find many more examples. Unfortunately, a lot of the cases have the same outcome as this one.

    The problems with volunteer organizations mentioned above reminds mme of our local Friends of the Ann Arbor Library organization. A well-intentioned volunteer agreed to head the organization a couple of years ago. He quickly got over his head as had the enthusiasm but not the skills to run the organization. He was promptly replaced after causing significant financial loss not due to theft but due to incorrect decisions.

  10. By Ethan's Mom
    September 1, 2009 at 12:59 am | permalink

    I really wonder about Melinda Morris. She’s the judge who departed from sentencing guidelines, sending a child molester with multiple convictions to jail for less than a year. She was reversed by the Court of Appeals and when the case came back to her, she gave him probation. The man, by the way, sexually assaulted his 7-year old step-granddaughter.