ST. LOUIS • The former director of a Webster University institute who embezzled $375,000 was sentenced in U.S. District Court on Monday to probation and ordered to fill out a 65-page journal.
Deborah Pierce, 62, of St. Louis, will also have to repay the money.
U.S. District Judge Henry Autrey blasted Pierce’s “reprehensible” theft and said there was no rational basis for a woman from a good background, with no history of daily abuse or drug problems and ample income to have committed this crime.
Autrey said it looked like Pierce was “having fun and needed some extra cash.”
Autrey then asked her how much prison time was enough: the 12 months asked for by her lawyer, the 18 months asked for by prosecutors or the two years she could have faced under the sentencing guidelines.
She struggled to respond, as she was crying and holding on to her lawyer, Adam Fein, for support.
Autrey then pointed out that Pierce had no money to repay the school immediately, and said “This is an unfortunate day for you.”
It looked like Pierce would be spending two years in prison.
Instead, Autrey gave her probation, and said he would expect her to complete a 65-page journal within 60 days. Autrey ordered Pierce to explain why she did what she did, what she learned along the way and what she learned that will assist others in not committing crimes.
Autrey said he would read and approve it, and would show it to his gang court participants — people with “significant” criminal backgrounds that include drug offenses and violent crimes that strive to be like Pierce was, Autrey said.
“I think it’s important for those people to know about people like you,” Autrey said, as they think the only people who commit crimes are “poor, from the ’hood and black.”
In the beginning of the hearing, Webster University Secretary Jeanelle Wiley said that the real losses from Pierce’s theft could not be repaid, citing the damage to the school’s reputation, the loss of trust and the loss of confidence of the broader community.
Fein cited Pierce’s lack of a criminal record and her “exemplary life,” and pointed out that 40 percent of all female fraud offenders receive no prison time, regardless of their past crimes.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Tom Albus said Pierce’s crime wasn’t a simple mistake. She had to set up a separate account to perpetrate the fraud, and $160,000 was found and recovered from that account, meaning it didn’t count toward the total fraud amount.
Pierce pleaded guilty in September to a federal felony charge of transporting stolen property across state lines.
Pierce was the director of the Confucius Institute at the university from 2007 to July 1, 2015. In September 2013, she established the unauthorized bank account. She withdrew large amounts of cash and paid personal expenses of herself and relatives, her plea says. The institute promotes academic research, community outreach and cultural exchange, her plea says.