FALSE HOPE

Veterans’ group victimized by $50,000 fraud, and then by justice system

Posted Aug. 06, 2014, at 2:54 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 07, 2014, at 8:51 p.m.

False Hope: Part 1 of 4

For 10 years, members of the York American Legion Post 56 met in the rented basement of a southern Maine retail plaza. They entered at the end of the mall past a video rental store and a five-and-dime joint, recalled the post’s adjutant, Pete Doe.

At meetings, they’d chat about dreams for a true home: a building big enough for bingo nights, weddings and charity pig roasts, with a gazebo outside for photos and a kitchen for catered dinners.

When a local woman died and left a plot of land for the nonprofit veterans group in memory of her father, the Legionnaires — made up of hundreds of veterans like Doe, 73, whose decades of Air Force service took him from Vietnam to Alabama to the United Kingdom — started hashing out plans to build a real Legion Post.

The woman’s bequest came at the right time. To help make their new headquarters a reality, the Legion had raised $300,000 since the ’90s from what finance officer Bill Hallisey calls “15 to 20 years of guys selling hot dogs and hamburgers.”

But the bequest had a stipulation: The Legion had to begin construction on the Hannaford Drive lot in York within two years.

They couldn’t afford the initial estimated cost: $1.2 million to $1.5 million, so they started looking for professional help — someone who could help them get a mortgage, find an architect and oversee construction.

That’s when they met Ryan Byther.

The Legion readily hired Byther, impressed with his stories of coming from a military family.

“Ryan is a charmer. He could sell ice to an Eskimo,” recalled Legion member Jean Seeley, whose husband, Bob, 79, is a Korean War veteran.

In a February 2008 letter to the Legion, Byther said to cover fundraising and construction costs, the Legion would need to raise $2 million.

It was his “honest belief,” wrote Byther, that Innovative Development Co., of which he was principal, could raise it all in two years.

To start fundraising, the Legion gave Byther a $50,000 retainer.

Blyther took the $50,000 and sunk it into a failed attempt at being a Portland nightclub owner and other ventures, according to court records.

Meanwhile, he didn’t raise a cent and, six months later, unpaid bills from plumbers, construction workers and others began to pile up, recalled Hallisey.

“He left us high and dry,” Hallisey said.

In the summer of 2008, Legion members went to the York Police Department, according to Geno Lemay, the post’s commander at the time. The York police started working with the attorney general’s office, and Assistant Attorney General Michael Colleran prosecuted the case.

Court proceedings, including the York County grand jury’s indictment in May 2011, revealed Byther had no fundraising experience and no license. In February 2012, Byther was found guilty of felony theft by deception in York County Superior Court.

Three months after the trial, Legion members got what they thought was their share of justice: Superior Court Justice John O’Neil sentenced the 36-year-old Byther to five years in prison, suspended all but six months and ordered him to repay the Legion the $50,000.

Byther’s sentence was typical of many cases in which felons get a restitution order and a suspended jail sentence, while crime victims expect they will be made whole by getting back what the criminal stole or damaged.

It was also typical in that little went as the victims expected.

In Byther’s case, court records show the judge ordered Byther to pay back the $50,000 in about three years — his period of probation.

But the court order didn’t specify how often or in what increments Byther ought to pay back the money. When this happens, the Department of Corrections sets restitution payments following state guidelines based on a probationer’s ability to pay.

The schedule set by Byther’s probation officer will take 8½ times as long for the Legion to get its money.

Under the probation plan, Byther will pay back the $50,000 at a monthly rate of $163.

Even if Byther never misses a payment — and he has missed a number already — it will take 25 years to pay it all back. That means his final payment would be due in 2038.

That’s three decades after he ripped them off.

And that, said Jean Seeley, is “without interest. Unbelievable.”

While Legion members are shocked at how the court and state has treated them, a Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting investigation of Maine’s victim restitution program reveals the Legion case is far from unusual.

The Center has found that the state often fails to meet its legal obligation to hold criminals accountable for the financial harm they inflict on victims. While it tells crime victims they will get the restitution owed them, felons are millions of dollars behind in their payments to victims.

No one in the state keeps track of how many millions are owed victims, but one district attorney’s office, in Cumberland, has data it shared with the Center. In that one county, which represents 21.5 percent of the state’s population, victims are overdue $2.6 million in restitution.

If the numbers in Cumberland County are extrapolated to the whole state, the estimated amount of money that has not been paid to Maine residents would be $12 million.

There are more than half a million dollars outstanding in Aroostook County, according to a 2013 county commissioners report.

“[W]e need to make stronger efforts to hold defendants to account,” wrote District Attorney Todd Collins, who said he has made restitution a priority in the past year. “This task gets appreciably more difficult as our caseload continues to grow and our staffing levels slide or remain flat.”

In Aroostook, $105,888 was disbursed to victims last year, an 80 percent increase from $58,781 disbursed in 2007.

The Center contacted all other district attorneys for restitution data. Those offices either did not respond to the request for data or said they did not have such data readily available.

“The restitution process is complicated and tedious,” wrote Terry Campbell, administrative assistant at the Hancock County district attorney’s office, in an email explaining the challenge of collecting such data.

While the Department of Corrections had some data, it was unable to state how much restitution is owed by criminals in jail or on probation, saying it would need expert computer assistance to extract such data.

However, the department was able to come up with some stats: It disbursed $1.2 million to 10,913 crime victims in 2013, a 30 percent drop from $1.76 million to 7,707 victims in 2004.

‘The best we can’

Cumberland County District Attorney Stephanie Anderson said two-thirds of the 1,181 restitution cases in her county are in default.

In many cases, defendants agree to a plea deal that includes a reduced sentence and say they will pay the restitution, Anderson said, then “they get out of jail and don’t pay it back. The enforcement is totally lacking.”

In 1977, the Maine Legislature amended the state criminal code to require courts to consider ordering restitution because it can “reinforce the offender’s sense of responsibility,” let him pay back his debt to society and the victim and “ease the burden of the victim.”

But 37 years later, this has long been easier said than done, with those assigned the task of collecting restitution pointing to the futility of trying to get money from poor offenders. They cite a variant of the cliche: “It’s like trying to get blood from a turnip.”

“It’s another thing that the Legislature told us we have to do,” said Collins, the Aroostook County district attorney. “We do it the best we can.”

Geoffrey Rushlau, district attorney for Sagadahoc, Waldo, Lincoln and Knox counties, said he often reminds crime victims who suffer financial loss that restitution is “a secondary objective” under the state’s criminal code.

“You’re holding a defendant accountable for violating a public law that applies to the public, not just as a violation to that victim,” he said.

Typically, said Collins, victims get so frustrated over years of chasing felons for their money that they would “rather have the person go back to jail” than continue to have the “false hope” that they one day will get the money they are owed.

“A lot of victims give up on restitution,” said Mary Farrar, who worked with Maine crime victims for 21 years through positions at the Somerset County district attorney’s office, the Department of Corrections and the attorney general’s office.

“They wait so long for it that by the time they get it — if they get it, and we can find them — they’re so far in debt, they’re victimized so much that they give up on the system because it takes so long.”

One victim who didn’t give up was Judy Meyer, managing editor of the Sun Journal in Lewiston. Her case demonstrates the persistence and knowledge of the system that it takes for a crime victim to get her due.

When Meyer returned to her car from a meeting at the State House in late April of 2009, she found her passenger’s side mirror shattered and her checkbook gone.

That same day, the people who broke into her car cashed a forged $350 check. They were caught and arrested, and Meyer said she attended court proceedings where she heard the pair plead guilty and agree to pay a court-ordered restitution of $10 a month.

Three years later, Meyer hadn’t received a penny.

“I have a file full of letters and notes I made about phone calls asking people for an update about where my restitution stood,” said Meyer. “Without me writing, reaching out to them — no communication. Maybe that’s the way the system’s set up.”

Then in 2012, the checks from the Kennebec County district attorney’s office started coming, and in odd amounts – $50, $78.78, $420. By October, she got back the full restitution ordered: $548.78 to replace the window, her purse and a pair of sunglasses.

Meyer said that $548.78 didn’t include “the time, effort and frustration it took” for her to get a new checking account number, repair the car and replace the stolen items for which she could not provide receipts.

For other victims — especially those owed a lot more than Meyer — the victimization can be compounded by life-changing losses.

At the York Legion, they know all about being victims twice and having to go into debt to make up for the loss that Byther is paying back in dribs and drabs.

But they wouldn’t give up on their hope of a new post.

After a delay, the 12,000-square-foot building finally opened in December 2008.

Now the York Legion is in dire financial straits, trying to repay vendors Byther had stiffed, among other debts. They took out a second mortgage to pay off debts, and a donation drive only gained them a few thousand dollars.

The Legion tried another avenue to recover their losses — they filed a civil suit against Byther — and won a $1.4 million judgment. But they haven’t received any of it yet — and don’t expect to.

“If we hadn’t run into the problem with Mr. Byther, we would have had sufficient funds to carry us for the first year or so,” Hallisey said. “We’re struggling, and we’re trying to find a way to work with the bank to figure out a way to stay here.”

Byther said he’s struggling, too.

The $50,000 in restitution can “feel like something I’ll never get out from under,” he said.

But when it comes to his payment schedule, “the state of Maine has been good to me,” Byther said. “I know they gave me a payment that’s in my budget. They didn’t want to make it so it was unaffordable.”

In 2013, Byther was short $496 in payments, and is behind $172 so far this year, according to scans of checks provided by the Legion on May 1.

“For the most part, I think I’ve had a month here or there where I went beyond [the deadline], but I always make it right up,” said Byther. “I can’t say whether I am behind or not specifically. I know I’m working toward it. I didn’t know I was behind until last year.”

Bob Seeley, the Korean War veteran, said the problems they’ve had are especially frustrating for vets who enlisted and fought for America’s tradition of freedom and justice.

“That’s what this American Legion stands for. That’s why most of us veterans enlisted and did our duty for our country,” said Seeley. “That’s what we’d like to do for the ones who are still doing it and who come back. We want them to come into this place and know we owe all these bills? That’s pathetic.”

York County District Attorney Kathryn Slattery said she was unfamiliar with the case and could not comment on it specifically.

She did say that when it comes to payment schedules for probationers, “that always goes back to, unfortunately, a defendant’s ability to pay.”

“You can incarcerate people on those issues, but we also have to make sure we’re not setting them up for failure,” said Slattery. When it comes to an offender’s finances, “we have to take defendants at their word as to what their resources are.”

Farrar, the victim advocate, said the system seems to be set up to make it as easy as possible for offenders to try to pay back restitution — not to ensure that victims are compensated.

“I want everyone to have a fair trial, and to have all those things they need for that and to understand what’s going on,” Farrar said. “But if you look at the other side, if a defendant needs forever” to pay restitution, “no one even hesitates to do that,” she said.

“It’s a lopsided situation.”

Part 2: DAs are frustrated, too

The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service based in Augusta. Email: mainecenter@gmail.com. Web: pinetreewatchdog.org. Center Editor-in-chief John Christie contributed to this report.

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