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St. Pete woman gets eight months in prison for cigarette lighter test fraud

TAMPA — Karen Forcade sobbed about how children are her life, but she's going to prison for a million-dollar fraud that prosecutors say put kids nationwide in potential danger.

"I need to say from the deepest part of my heart how sorry I am for what I've done," Forcade said Tuesday in federal court in Tampa.

That was minutes before U.S. District Judge James D. Whittemore sentenced her to eight months in prison, plus eight months of home detention.

What Forcade did was falsify parts of 97 safety tests for cigarette lighters made or imported for sale in the United States from 1994 to 2005.

The companies making or distributing the lighters paid her company, Youth Research of St. Petersburg, to have 100 children test each model to ensure that no more than 10 could make it work.

But Forcade, 67, of St. Petersburg, pleaded guilty to falsifying test data and telling subcontractors to do the same. In one 1998 test, she fabricated data for 96 of the 100 children on the testing panel. In 2003, she rewrote test data sheets to hide that a lighter failed the safety test.

As a result, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission let more than 1,000 models of lighters, many with similar designs and safety features, be sold in the United States based on the assurances of Forcade's company that they were safe.

"How many were left on coffee tables and kitchen counters and night stands?" said Mary Murphy, a trial attorney with the Justice Department's Office of Consumer Litigation in Washington.

Parents bought lighters labeled as child-resistant, Murphy said, but "they were basically bringing in what could have been a loaded gun."

Whittemore also ordered Forcade to serve three years of supervised release and to pay a $10,000 fine. She was not ordered to pay restitution. Although officials estimated that she took in a total of $1.45 million for the tests, she made only an estimated $120,000 to $200,000 after she paid subcontractors and covered other expenses.

Also, officials said it was difficult to determine exactly who lost what for purposes of making restitution. Before Forcade's sentencing, federal probation officials sent letters to 78 companies asking about their potential losses. Two responded with what appeared to be inflated claims.

The fraud was uncovered after a manufacturer submitted complete sets of data for two different tests to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. There, a health sciences expert compared the data and spotted problems, leading to a wider review.

Forcade pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit fraud in January. Federal sentencing guidelines called for 37 to 46 months in prison.

Her attorney, Jack Fernandez Jr., asked Whittemore not to sentence Forcade to prison. Instead, he asked that she be sentenced to house arrest so she could care for her husband.

Forcade is a "broken shell of a person" who believes her crimes led her husband to suffer a debilitating heart attack and two strokes, he said. Partly because of her strict Catholic upbringing, she believed she could redeem herself only by caring for the husband crippled by her crimes, according to Fernandez and a psychiatrist who examined her.

Whittemore said Forcade's need to care for her husband did not justify a sentence that kept her out of prison. Prison, he said, would serve to promote respect for the law, reflect the seriousness of her crime and deter others.

And despite Forcade's grief, Whittemore said she committed a crime motivated by money and greed.

"You knew exactly what you were doing," he said.

St. Pete woman gets eight months in prison for cigarette lighter test fraud 09/21/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 21, 2010 10:42pm]
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