Here is a little story about a big man who embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars from his employer, cheated the U.S. Treasury and will serve not a day in jail for it.
If Thomas Coughlin, Wal-Mart’s former No. 2 executive, has learned anything from his encounter with the law, it is how to manipulate the justice system.
For one thing, because of poor health he gets to stay home and avoid even the most accommodating of white-collar prison camps, as those un-jails are dubbed.
Then there is his notion of community service. Less imaginative felons wind up collecting highway trash. Coughlin goes to a party.
It’s true. Coughlin persuaded his probation officer to let him count as community service the hours he spent last month schmoozing with old hunting buddies at a banquet for the National Wild Turkey Federation, local chapter.
Well, why not? The event raised money for the nonprofit, conservation group, according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, which first reported Coughlin’s big night out. So what if the federation promotes killing wild turkeys while working to conserve them?
Coughlin got to count not only his time at the banquet, but time spent attending planning meetings and rounding up auction items.
No spooning out soup to the homeless for this millionaire.
The sheer pleasure of being out of the house and among the 350 banquet-goers was itself a bonus. Except for approved forays, he and his ankle bracelet are spending his 27-month sentence within 10 feet of his house, which sits on a 2,000-acre ranch near Centerton, Arkansas.
A Convicted Felon
Why not prison? Coughlin, 58, admitted he stole for several years in multiple ways, coercing subordinates to help and turning one into a convicted felon. While Wal-Mart says his take was higher, Coughlin’s plea deal let him repay the company $300,000 in restitution plus $100,000 to the government for unpaid taxes.
His crimes called out for prison time, but Coughlin’s lawyers convinced U.S. District Judge Robert Dawson that the defendant’s health was so precarious that he might not survive the stress of incarceration.
And yet, he managed to drag himself to his community service work.
“The idea that a convicted felon who is too critically ill to go even to a minimum security prison would be allowed to go to parties is very disturbing,” U.S. Attorney Robert Balfe told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
The thing of it is, Coughlin’s ailments are largely self- inflicted.
Heart Disease, Obesity, Diabetes
At 6 feet 4 inches, he weighs 330 pounds, an appeals court pointed out last year. He suffers from severe pulmonary hypertension, high blood pressure, type II diabetes, double vessel coronary arrhythmia, sleep apnea, knee and back pain and obesity. There have been times when his heart has stopped pumping, almost killing him, and in 2003 a defibrillator was implanted in his chest.
For 25 years, doctors told Coughlin to lose weight, advice he all but ignored, according to the court’s review of the record.
I’m not saying his sentence should overlook his poor health or subject him to conditions likely to kill him. There is no death penalty for stealing, nor should there be. And he surely never meant to make himself as sick as he is.
But the situation does call to mind the story about the defendant who killed his parents and then threw himself on the mercy of the court because he was an orphan, notes Wayne State University law professor Peter Henning in Detroit.
More important, the case suggests special treatment for wealthy white-collar defendants.
“Would the obese drug dealer get the same consideration?” says Henning, who edits a blog on white-collar crime. “I doubt it.”
Besides, when you think of a place where someone suffering from heart disease and diabetes might go to safeguard his health, a banquet doesn’t immediately leap to mind.
In fact, if overeating is his problem, is Coughlin better off serving time at home, with a handy refrigerator, than in prison, where not even Club Fed earns stars for haute cuisine?
Judge Dawson “clearly erred” by allowing home detention, the St. Louis-based 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1.
Ordered to try again, Dawson gave Coughlin almost the same sentence in February while tacking on 1,500 hours of community service.
A new U.S. Supreme Court ruling giving judges more discretion in following sentencing guidelines doomed a possible appeal, and the government said last week it was giving up.
The new freedom judges have will go a long way toward preventing inhumane, draconian sentences.
And yet the guidelines created by Congress were designed as a straitjacket to end sentencing disparities, especially the light treatment typically given white-collar defendants by sympathetic judges.
That Dawson admired Coughlin is clear. In his February sentencing order, he called the defendant “perhaps the most gifted businessperson with the world’s largest retail corporation,” who should use his gifts for community service rather than see them “wasted in the physical deterioration of unnecessary imprisonment.”
Hadn’t he already suffered? A library to which Coughlin had contributed announced it would no longer name the building for him.
And, on top of that humiliation, the judge pointed out that the felony conviction means no gun possession, and that means no more hunting for Coughlin, who, when health allowed, had been passionate about the sport.
If the Supreme Court has now freed up sentencing judges to show that sort of empathy toward corporate crooks, then the days of 10 to 25-year prison terms for white-collar criminals may be winding down. Bloomberg