DADE CITY — Barbara Jean Lippincott pleaded guilty Thursday to stealing $120,000 from the American Spaniel Club Inc. The club's ex-treasurer said she did it to feed her addiction to Internet gambling. The Wesley Chapel woman faced up to 30 years in prison.
But she walked out of the Pasco County Courthouse a free woman.
It wasn't because of mercy. It wasn't because she needed help, or accepted responsibility for her crimes.
It was purely a business decision.
"The board of directors were very upset and felt betrayed," said the club's legal chair, Dallas attorney Linda Moore. "But they wanted to make sure they made the right business decision for the club, which meant restitution as opposed to pushing for a jail sentence."
Instead of sending her to prison, Circuit Judge Pat Siracusa sentenced the 55-year-old Lippincott to 15 years of probation — and ordered her to pay back every cent of the $120,000 she stole.
The judge did that at the club's request, and this, too: He withheld adjudication of guilt on Lippincott's two second-degree charges of grand theft.
That means Lippincott, a college accounting professor, was spared becoming a felon.
Otherwise, how would she be able to repay the entire $120,000? She's been ordered to pay $500 a month for the first year, then $1,000 a month after that.
Lippincott was accused of writing checks from the club's accounts to play slots machines online. She was fired from the University of Tampa after her August 2007 arrest. But her lawyer told the court she's found new employment at Nova Southeastern University teaching at the school's South Florida campuses.
Vasilios Major is a social worker with the Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender's Office who helps defendants in the criminal justice system. He's seen how hard it is for his office's clients to get work after being saddled with a criminal conviction.
"Once (employers) see that question — 'Are you a convicted felon?' — people put that on their resume and it's a no call, no followup kind of thing," Major said.
It might be even harder, he surmised, for someone with Lippincott's white collar background to get a job with a felony on her record.
The skills of blue collar workers or laborers allows them to "work off the books" for the cash, he said.
How could a college professor do that?
The whole subject of adjudication was so important to Lippincott and her attorney that it delayed her sentencing for several weeks. At first, she was going to plead no contest and leave her fate to the judge. But there was no guarantee he would withhold adjudication.
So her attorney instead struck an ironclad deal with the state and the dog club to keep her from becoming a felon. But Lippincott risks facing the full prison sentence if she doesn't pay the money back.
"I know you've led a good life until now, I know this is a bump in the road," the judge told her Thursday. "But I don't want you to mistake the court's withhold of adjudication as minimizing the damage you've done."
Jamal Thalji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6236.