2009-05-28 / Local & State

Ex-Aide To Gov. Ridge Pleads Guilty In 2nd Theft

By MARK SCOLFORO ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - A woman who admitted stealing thousands of dollars from Gov. Tom Ridge's re-election campaign funds nearly a decade ago pleaded guilty Wednesday to stealing about $1.1 million from the Harrisburg real estate and investment company that later hired her.

Lauretta S. "Laurie'' Simmons, 44, spent the money on real estate in the Caribbean island of Aruba, vintage automobiles, bicycles worth $6,000 apiece and a $41,000 wine collection, she said in court records.

Simmons also said she bought designer furniture, a Cartier watch and a Vespa scooter - and stocked her modest home in Lemoyne with hundreds of gold and silver coins.

Simmons has agreed to relinquish all of those goods and more as part of a plea deal that is likely to result in a federal prison sentence of about four years, Assistant U.S. Attorney Bruce Brandler said during a 20-minute hearing during which she pleaded guilty to wire fraud.

Simmons went to work in 1999 as an administrative assistant to Joseph V. Sweeney, head of the firm that bears his name, after the Ridge campaign fired her. In the earlier case, she pleaded guilty to mail fraud and was ordered to pay $94,000 in restitution.

She also was sentenced to a year and a day in prison but was released after spending a short time in a Harrisburg halfway house, Brandler said.

Her embezzlement from Joseph V. Sweeney and Associates - which does business as Public Affairs Consultants - and a related company, Arcus Properties LLP, occurred over a threeyear period that began in January 2006. She handled bank business, including writing checks and making deposits.

"She was virtually unsupervised in this activity during the years she handled these responsibilities,'' Brandler told U.S. District Judge William W. Caldwell.

A bounced check and questionable wire transfer alerted Sweeney, who notified police, Brandler said. The FBI secretly recorded a subsequent meeting between the two.

"She admitted during that meeting that she stole the funds and she admitted she betrayed Mr. Sweeney,'' Brandler told the judge.

Simmons and her lawyer, Terry McGowan, declined comment after Wednesday's plea hearing. A phone message left for Sweeney was not immediately returned.

Brandler said her plea deal depended on her cooperating in a criminal investigation not related to the theft from the business. He declined to elaborate.

Federal sentencing guidelines will probably generate a range of 46 to 57 months, although the maximum possible sentence is 20 years and a $2.2 million fine, Brandler said.

McGowan told Caldwell the precise amount of the theft was still being calculated, but he agreed that $1.1 million was "in the ballpark.''

Caldwell ordered a pre-sentence report due by mid-July, after which she will be sentenced. Simmons told the judge she is currently unemployed.

Simmons provided prosecutors with an account of her possessions that were obtained with Sweeney's money. They include a $225,000 property in West Punt, Aruba, as well as real estate in Florida, Arizona, Colorado and Texas. She also listed a 1979 Chevrolet Corvette, a 1973 Ford Bronco, a 1965 Ford Mustang, a 2004 Range Rover and five bicycles that together she valued at $23,000.

She said a $145,000 property in Chincoteague, Va., was not subject to forfeiture, but Brandler said it might be sold to pay restitution.

Simmons helped raise about $24 million during Ridge's two runs for governor before she was fired as a $78,000-a-year deputy campaign manager in August 1998. During her October 2000 sentencing - also before Caldwell - she expressed remorse, and her lawyer said she had been affected by the end of a 12-year relationship and needed to pay debts.

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