Service sentence often unserved
By COLLINS CONNER, Times Staff Writer
In theory, community service is the perfect pact: Felons get lighter sentences for working in their communities and society gets the benefit of their labor.
In reality, the felons often get the best of the bargain.
Joseph Mondeau certainly did.
He extorted $100,000 from a priest in Lutz by threatening to expose their sexual relationship. Sentenced to probation in 1997, he was ordered to perform 2,000 hours of public work. The judge called it "the deal of the century."
But outside the courtroom, Mondeau cut himself an even better deal.
During the next five years, he reported working 1,200 hours for a Tampa animal sanctuary. In fact, the sanctuary manager said, Mondeau never worked a single hour there. The state never checked.
Mondeau's case is not the only one in which the Florida Department of Corrections failed to police community service sentences. In a review of 22 criminal files in 10 counties, the St. Petersburg Times found:
-- Bruce Oelker of Lakeland, who stole $41,000 in state sales tax. His community service work? He continued to sing in his church choir.
-- Darrell Albert Keen, who fled the scene of an accident, leaving behind his injured daughters. He served his Citrus County community by acting as a play spotter for his son's Pop Warner football team.
-- Amy Wytiaz of Tampa, who was convicted of manslaughter for giving heroin to her friend. She contributed to society by serving as a dolphin watcher at a for-profit amusement park.
"No way!" said Alachua State Attorney Bill Cervone. "I can't believe what I'm hearing. That's unacceptable."
In the Times' sampling, 15 of the 22 cases had questionable public service work or none at all. The Times found the 22 cases by searching numerous newspaper archives and the Internet for recent reports on felony defendants sentenced to community service.
"I think we would concede that the community service (policing) issue probably has some inconsistency among the probation officers," said Richard Duggar, the DOC's deputy secretary.
How much inconsistency? There's no way to tell.
The DOC only recently began to log community service data into the agency's computer system. That's why the Times couldn't perform a comprehensive review of public service work.
DOC spokesman Sterling Ivey echoed Duggar in "conceding inaccuracies in some of these files," but he added that for every flawed case, there are others with offenders truly serving the public.
Duggar acknowledged that policing community work isn't a priority.
"We're talking about 153,000 probationers" spread among 2,400 probation officers, he said.
"Their first priority is public safety -- "Are (the probationers) committing felonies?' The second priority would be, "Are they meeting the terms of their probation?' The third priority may be community service.
"This is not an excuse; it's really a reality."
Tell that to Judith Campbell, a Venice dry cleaner owner who was victimized by a woman under DOC supervision.
The woman, Laurie Ann Chwojko, was ordered in 1997 to work 50 community service hours for destroying property. She told her probation officer she was volunteering at Calusa Lakes. That's a golf club. Chwojko didn't volunteer there; she was a paid barmaid at the 19th hole, according to the club's food and beverage director.
In 1999, for stealing $10,000 from Admiral Air of Sarasota, Chwojko was ordered to do 100 more hours of community service. She didn't do a single hour. When she should have been contributing to her community, Chwojko was stealing $13,000 from her next boss, Judith Campbell.
Campbell said DOC probation officers should have cited Chwojko for failing to perform the public service ordered in the Admiral Air case.
If they had, Campbell said, Chwojko "would have been in jail for violating her probation and she wouldn't have stolen from me."
In the law, it's called "public service."
It is one answer to overcrowded, costly prisons -- sentencing felons to probation, not jail. That way, they regularly report to probation officers and pay fees and fines.
The sentence also can include community service.
"It's a requirement to give back something to the community because you've, in effect, taken something away," said Pinellas Circuit Judge W. Douglas Baird. "It's not supposed to be painful, but it is supposed to be doing something for the community."
Gonsalo Rios of Ruskin performed such a service Sunday after Sunday, in the spring of 2000.
With breaks for Easter and Father's Day, Rios spent 100 hours, eight at a time, picking trash off Hillsborough County roadways.
It was part of the penalty he paid for improperly storing a loaded handgun that a child found and used to accidentally kill another child.
Rios was the exception, not the rule, in the Times' sampling. Just four other felons out of the 22 performed commendable work: helping clients at the Association for Retarded Citizens, assisting with data entry at the American Cancer Society, working at a medical facility for brain damaged patients and cleaning stalls for the sheriff's horse patrol.
Others in the sampling did such work as continuing to volunteer at the Chamber of Commerce, making helpful suggestions to the staff of an assisted living facility or helping a charity that had already filed for bankruptcy.
Though Florida law doesn't describe what should be considered appropriate community service, it's clear to Hernando Circuit Judge Richard Tombrink.
The work should be performed for "some sort of nonprofit organization or a government agency, doing something that would benefit society generally," Tombrink said.
"The work could be affiliated with a church, but it would have to be something that would benefit society generally, not just the church -- like working with the church to feed the homeless or provide meals on wheels or work at a homeless shelter."
That would eliminate the community work of former Marion County Sheriff Ken Ergle, who stole $170,000 in public money.
Ergle, who reportedly spent the money on Christmas gifts and family doctor bills, performed the bulk of his public service helping his church pack up and move.
Gainesville Circuit Judge Larry G. Turner sees another limit to public service: It needs to be a new activity, above and beyond the offender's ordinary efforts.
"If someone is already doing some volunteer activity, for them now to continue to do that and get community service work credit for it, that's not in the spirit of what I had in mind," he said.
Bruce Oelker, the Lakeland man who stole tax money, was singing in the church choir long before he claimed nearly 250 hours of rehearsals and church services as public works, said Robert M. Boulware, the church's director of fine arts ministries.
"Whether you did it for 50 years before, it's still community service," said Boulware.
Of the 22 cases, five offenders performed no public service work, though as much as three years had passed since they were sentenced to probation.
That's because there's no timetable for most public service work, DOC officials say; it merely must be completed before probation ends. After the Times made inquiries about the sample cases, DOC probation officers ordered two of the five offenders to get cracking.
Orlando Lago was one of them. A youth league baseball coach in Pembroke Pines, Lago erupted when umpire Tom Dziedzinski called a player out. He broke Dziedzinski's jaw. Ordered to perform 100 hours of public service, he hadn't done a single hour in the 13 months since his sentencing.
These flaws fall into the lap of the state's Department of Corrections, according to prosecutors and judges.
"As a prosecutor I always relied on the DOC to make sure the community service work that defendants are given credit for was going to be noble community service work," said former Assistant State Attorney Anthony Salvatore Arena of Tampa.
"It's pretty difficult to police, but we certainly would hope those things are being policed and being checked out."
In the case of Naeem Lakhani, who gave his Gainesville roommate a fatal dose of stolen oxycontin, nothing was checked out.
Lakhani's public work forms are signed by representatives of four different organizations, none with corporate addresses or contact numbers. When the Times asked for documentation authenticating the organizations -- authentication required by DOC policy -- Orlando DOC officials had none.
"Our file doesn't contain any applications or documentations regarding those organizations," said Priscilla Carter, the agency's Orlando spokeswoman.
Lakhani's probation officer "just indicated that the offender indicated there were places (Lakhani) was interested in doing community service and had something set up and he was allowed to do that," Carter said.
After the newspaper's inquiry, the DOC asked Lakhani for the names of the organization's contact people and their phone numbers. One contact person was Lakhani's mother.
The "organizations" turned out to be various social services available to members of Lakhani's Ismaili Muslim community. Ismaili volunteer Husein Cumber said Lakhani gave information sheets to some community members and provided others with computer instruction.
Mondeau, the Tampa man who blackmailed a priest, turned in reports, signed by Gary Kinslow, that show 1,200 hours of public service work at Wildlife on Easy Street. But according to sanctuary manager Scott Lope, Mondeau donated discarded plants to the facility from time to time. Kinslow used to volunteer there, Lope said, but he hasn't been around in years.
Kinslow verified much of what Lope said. Mondeau "deals with lawns, trees, bushes and, in his work, he comes up with extra stuff that don't cost anything, stuff they were going to throw in the trash," Kinslow said. "He takes them to Wildlife on Easy Street."
Kinslow said he signed the work forms because he considers Mondeau "a very nice man."
"I don't have a phone number for him," Kinslow said of Mondeau. "Once a month, he comes by and brings me a form to sign."
In Mondeau's five years of probation, the DOC never visited or telephoned the sanctuary to verify Mondeau's efforts.
After learning about Mondeau's ruse from the Times and verifying it, the DOC had Mondeau arrested for violating his probation.
The Times attempted to contact each of the offenders named in this report. Rios and Ergle declined to comment. Mondeau, Keen and Wytias could not be reached. Oelker, Lago and Chwojko did not respond to two telephone messages each. Lakhani's father said Lakhani and his mother would have to answer questions, but neither responded to messages.
Duggar, the DOC's deputy director, acknowledges there are "inconsistencies" in the way community service is scrutinized and supervised. He blames a lack of money.
"Yes, we have too many people to supervise," he said, "but there are limits on what the Department of Corrections can have as staffing as opposed to what is needed in the Department of Education or the Department of Children and Families.
"It's just a matter of not having enough funding to fund everything that needs to happen.
"Probation is a high priority, but community service may not be as high a priority as teachers in the classroom. Those are the decisions the state government has to make."
Duggar indicated that, at times, it might be preferable to turn a blind eye to community service violations.
"You can't consider this in a vacuum," he said. "Everything you do impacts the rest of the system.
"If you consider that you might violate someone (revoke their probation) for not doing community service hours or for not paying the cost of supervision, all you do is burden the system further. You violate them, then you go back to court and they go back to prison. Judges don't want to do that unless they have to."
Cervone, the Alachua state attorney, acknowledged that "there are some realistic problems that all go back to money and manpower." But he said that's no excuse.
It is the DOC's job to enforce judges' orders, he said, including appropriate community service.
"If I were the judge, I'd be very unhappy" to learn the public work was questionable or avoided altogether. "But we sit here fat, dumb and happy, assuming it's being done as the court ordered."
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