By Elaine Silvestrini, Tampa Tribune
TAMPA — Eight days after he started working at a clinic for blinded veterans, Richard Brown started stealing from it.
Blind himself and with both legs amputated below the knee, Brown “was an expert at making people trust him,” his former boss, Nancy Kirk, told a judge Wednesday during a sentencing hearing in federal court.
“Fellow employees trusted him,” Kirk said. “He used that trust to steal from veterans by stealing their low-vision aids and selling them.”
Brown was paid more than $78,000 a year as a coordinator helping blind veterans in the eye clinic at James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital. And in two years, he stole more than $88,000 worth of equipment, such as iPads and iPhones, selling them at discounted prices to friends and relatives and on eBay.
Brown’s attorney, public defender Adam Allen, asked U.S. District Judge Steven D. Merryday to give Brown probation — not the 10 months in prison a prosecutor recommended — because of his extensive medical problems, his lack of a criminal history and his intention to repay what he stole.
Allen said Brown was paying off debts. But Kirk said Brown bragged to coworkers about purchasing “big-ticket items like a big-screen TV, a new car and new furniture.”
This was not, she said, “a mistake by someone experiencing financial problems. This is a pattern of behavior that is not likely to change.”
Brown, she said, “spoke constantly of his dedication to the veterans and how hard he worked to help them. He was the first to tell me when he felt a co-worker was not doing their best for veterans.”
Allen told Merryday that Brown is deeply remorseful and determined to repay the government. His actions have strained his marriage — his wife also is blind — and his relationship with his military family. Although Brown is not a veteran, Brown’s father served 29 years in the Air Force and his two brothers also served, Allen said.
“He’s let them down,” Allen said. “He let his wife down; he let his brother’s down.”
“Don’t forget the country,” Merryday said.
“He let the country down,” Allen agreed.
Brown, 48, of Brandon, lost his vision and his legs because of Type 1 diabetes, which also cost him a kidney and his pancreas. He may be on the verge of organ failure again, Allen said.
He also has heart problems and had quadruple bypass surgery in 1998. Allen said Brown takes 13 medications a day, including one drug that’s not available in federal prisons.
“I know what I’ve done, like he said, has hurt me and my family,” Brown told the judge. “I hurt myself. I want to pay back everything that I can pay back. … I want to show society that I wasn’t the person that committed that crime. That’s not me.”
While she did not take a position on whether Brown should be imprisoned, Kirk, his former boss, told Merryday she wanted to make sure Brown is never again in a position to steal. He should not ever “be placed in a position of trust with any organization,” she said.
“Mr. Brown’s visual impairment was not a problem when I hired him,” Kirk said.
“He had the ability to perform his work at a very high level. His evaluations were always outstanding, and I recommended him for a $1,000 performance award for his work with the veterans. His abilities were in no way marginal. His visual impairment should not be used now as a reason to make him less responsible.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Sara Sweeney didn’t dispute Brown’s medical problems are severe. But she said the prison system is equipped to treat him.The judge said that Brown had insulted “the dignity of not only the veterans, but the country and the office that he took.”
“There is a sense that what he deserves and what is sensible to give him are probably two different things,” Merryday continued. “This offense is especially bothersome. … He should have had a special affinity for the persons he was serving.”
Brown’s medical condition is “not a license to steal,” Merryday said. “It’s not a license to go in and recklessly rip off the taxpayers and, not only the government, but people in need.”
Merryday said he’s skeptical Brown is remorseful, and may just be sorry he was caught.
But in the end, the judge granted Allen’s request and sentenced Brown to five years of probation. In addition to paying restitution, Brown must serve eight months of home detention.
The judge urged Brown to comply with all restrictions while he is on probation, warning him that if he steps over the line, he will go to prison. “If you don’t think you will go to jail, go to prison, if you violate the terms of this supervised release,” the judge said, “try me.”
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