BANGOR, Maine — It started small: $30 here to pay for gas, $50 there to pay down credit card debt, $100 to pay for groceries.
By the time anyone began to notice, the president of a health care employees union in Washington County had embezzled nearly $30,000 in co-workers’ union dues over a six-year period.
“I think the reason you stole from your fellow union members is because you discovered that you could,” U.S. District Judge John Woodcock said Thursday during the sentencing of Bernardette Beal in U.S. District Court in Bangor. “When you did it and did not get caught, you resolved to do it again and again and again.”
Beal, 59, of Jonesport will spend eight months in prison, one month less than the recommendation of Assistant U.S. Attorney Nancy Torreson, followed by two years of supervised release.
Beal already has paid restitution to the Teachers, AFL-CIO Downeast Federation of Healthcare Professionals, Local 5073, which represents employees of the Narraguagus Bay Health Care Facility, a nursing home in Milbridge.
From 2003 to 2009, Beal singlehandedly oversaw the business of a small union that was funded solely by member dues. During that time, she wrote more than 200 checks for varying amounts from the union’s bank account to pay for goods and services that had nothing to do with the union, Torreson said.
The union did not have an office so had no expenses for mortgage, rent, fuel, utilities, phone or television, according to court documents. The organization also did not hold meetings, so it had no expenses for food and other supplies.
When union members became suspicious of finances, Beal lashed out, according to statements made Thursday by her former co-workers.
“She is the meanest, rudest person I have ever met,” one woman wrote in a statement.
When the local union’s state and federal affiliates began to ask questions, Beal forged signatures to cover her tracks.
“One of the things that really bothers me about this case … is the efforts she made to protect detection,” Woodcock said during the court proceedings.
Beal’s attorney, Stephen Smith of Bangor, disputed claims that his client, a grandmotherly woman who needed a portable oxygen tank to help her breathe, intimidated union members.
“She’s not the Down East Jimmy Hoffa,” Smith said, referring to the infamous Teamsters president of the 1960s. Her attorney also reminded the judge that she has cooperated throughout the investigation, that she avoided a costly trial by pleading guilty and that she has paid restitution in full.
Woodcock said he wasn’t suggesting that Beal was the Down East Jimmy Hoffa.
“For one thing, she’s here,” the judge joked, a nod to Hoffa’s suspicious disappearance in the mid-1970s.
Beal bowed her head and wept during much of Thursday’s two-hour sentencing hearing. She addressed the court just before Woodcock’s sentence and said she misses the co-workers and friends that she lost because of her actions.
“It breaks my heart knowing what I’ve done to them,” the woman said.
Beal’s daughter Heather Beal, who recently lent her mother money to pay the remaining restitution, said she’s embarrassed.
“She’s done the walk of shame through that small town,” the younger Beal said.
When she’s released from jail in eight months, Bernardette Beal will be prohibited from contacting several members of Local 5073.