Jeff Jardine

Chopra fraud case could be rare one when it comes to restitution

Stan CO SO

When a federal judge this week sentenced Aruna Chopra to a year in prison and a year of home detention and ordered her to pay $4.2 million in restitution to lenders and the city of Modesto, I suspect readers collectively sighed, “Yeah, right. Good luck in seeing a dime of that.”

But in Chopra’s case, victims – who include taxpayers – actually will receive sizable restitution amounts when the Chopra property in north Modesto is sold. Chopra had grand dreams of building an IMAX theater, a hotel, shops and condominiums across Dale Road from Kaiser Hospital, but she defrauded the city and investors while trying to get it done. The court directed that proceeds go to the victims.

How rare is it for victims to be made whole or anywhere close to it? Extremely rare.

There are more cases like that of swindler Tony Daniloo. As The Bee’s Garth Stapley detailed in a January story, Daniloo swindled millions of dollars from victims and was ordered to pay $8 million in restitution. Yet the folks he conned will receive at best only about $14,400, and only after the court gets $12,200 as a special assessment by the time Daniloo turns 58 in 2033. The federal court loses its clout to collect on victims’ behalf 20 years after the offender is released from prison. Daniloo not only is out of prison but also is off probation and is working as a handyman in the Bay Area, paying $100 a month for restitution.

And there are more cases, like the one involving Doug Porter, the former minister convicted in 2008 after killing and defrauding Hickman rancher Frank Craig four years earlier. Craig’s family ultimately recovered about $225,000 of the $1.1 million the prosecution could document Porter took from Craig. Only $25,000 came directly from the Porter family via the sale of a lot in La Grange the Porters deeded to Craig’s niece after the trial ended.

Far more often, victims see only a very small fraction of the restitution ordered, and when it does trickle in, it’s in insultingly miniscule amounts.

In the state prison system, inmates earn from 30 cents to $1 per hour for menial tasks. Victims can only hope their offender is assigned to the fire-training program at, say, the Sierra Conservation Center’s Baseline Camp in Jamestown. Firefighter inmates make the big prison money: $2 a day, plus $1 per hour when they’re out fighting fires.

The state collects 50 percent from every deposit to an inmate’s account, including money sent to the inmate by family or friends, to go first toward victim restitution and then toward the restitution fine mandatory with every conviction. That, along with money collected by the courts from parolees and probationers, goes into the California Victim Compensation Program, which also gets money from everything from traffic violators to first-degree murderers. The prison system last year contributed $22 million to the victim-restitution fund.

The state fund also receives federal dollars. The money is then made available to victims and their families for funeral, medical and other expenses, but only after personal insurance or workers’ compensation benefits are exhausted.

“We’re the last-resort payer,” said the fund’s Kyle Hedum, who said the fund has paid out more than $2.3 billion in its 50-plus years of existence.

Chief Stanislaus County Probation Officer Jill Silva said her department will collect restitution and pay it directly to victims while sending restitution fine money to the state victim fund. Her office also intercepts state tax refunds due to offenders who still owe restitution dollars. In 2014-15, county probation officials collected $395,000 in restitution orders and fees and $397,500 more in tax refunds that went toward restitution. They also will go after probationers who receive large amounts of money through inheritances or other means.

Unlike federal restitution, which can be collected for only 20 years after the convict leaves prison, state or local restitution lasts until the debt is repaid or the offender dies.

All that stated, is the general skepticism that a victim will never see much of the restitution amount ordered by the court accurate?

Pretty much, Hedum said. When an inmate is released, and assuming he or she finds a job and pays toward the restitution, most jobs are going to be minimum wage or low-paying. The courts mandate minimal amounts – sometimes only a few bucks each week – to go toward restitution.

Some judges, he said, don’t want to get victims’ hopes up that they will get a large chunk of money when, in fact, that rarely happens unless the convicted person owned property or had significant assets that could be subjected to liens. That doesn’t happen often.

And, Silva said, released offenders are adept at hiding income when they are on the outside, working only for cash and hiding money at home. Periodically, a search will turn up a wad of currency that is confiscated for the restitution funds.

Some victims never claim what they are due.

“They are homeless, or they haven’t reported an address,” Hedum said. “Probation does a good job of trying to track them down, but they might not trust law enforcement. Or you’re the father of a daughter who’s been raped and that $40 every three or four months only reminds them of what happened. Who wants to relive that every few months?”

In reality, most victims won’t see anything close to the amount of restitution they are entitled to receive. Cases like the one involving Chopra are very rare, indeed.