Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that Northeast Agricultural Sales, Inc. filed for bankruptcy. The company has not filed for bankruptcy. VTDigger regrets the error.
BURLINGTON — A St. Johnsbury woman who embezzled $2.2 million from her employer over a decade to fuel a gambling addiction was sentenced Tuesday to more than four years in prison.
Jennifer Dwyer, 50, pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud in October as part of a plea deal.
On Tuesday, Judge Christina Reiss sentenced Dwyer to 51 months behind bars, with three years of supervision after her release. That was on the low end of federal guidelines, which recommended a 51-63 month incarceration.
Dwyer was the bookkeeper for a small farm supply business called Northeast Agricultural Sales Inc. in Lyndonville. From 2007 to 2017, she regularly re-routed money — in $2,000 to $3,000 increments — to her personal account, using the cash largely to gamble and pay off debts.
Meanwhile, the company was struggling to stay afloat. The owner told Dwyer he would not forgive her.
Dwyer’s lawyer, Natasha Sen, argued in favor of the shorter sentence, emphasizing the power an addiction can have in driving bad decisions. She noted that a gambling addiction in particular can be devastating, because people see their negative behavior as the only way out of the negative behavior.
“It’s a situation so unlike substance addiction in that respect,” Sen said. “People think if they just play once more, they can finally win it all back.”
But Reiss questioned if paying the company back was ever Dwyer’s intent, noting that over the past decade, Dwyer never tried to pay the company back even a little, and instead, just continued to steal more and more.
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“Not everyone with a gambling addiction steals $2 million from their employer,” Reiss said.
Sen said once Dwyer began stealing, it became very hard to stop. The lawyer said this was “by all measures” a devastating case that wreaked havoc on not only Dwyer’s life, but the lives of people around her.
“One of the first things she told me was ‘I’ve been wanting to tell the Choinieres (the family that owns Northeast Agricultural Sales) for so long,’” Sen said. “But the only thing that could stop her was getting caught.”
Reiss said clinical evaluations made it clear that she wasn’t acting out of greed, or any malicious intent. Dwyer did, however, make some big purchases over the past several years — including a 2015 GMC Sierra 2500 truck and a 2016 Sea-Doo watercraft.
However, restitution from the liquidation of Dwyer’s assets will only come to $85,000 — a small portion of the more than $2 million that she stole over the years.
“This is a troubling case, because it’s one where the criminal justice system can’t fix the problem that’s brought us here,” Reiss said.
Then Dwyer stood and addressed the judge herself. She began by talking about what a great mentor Jim Choiniere was when she started at the company in 1998, and how he would’ve given the shirt off his back to any of his employees without hesitation.
“I can’t tell you how sorry I am I messed this up,” Dwyer said. “I never meant to deceive anyone, but I recognize what I’ve done, and I know I need to fix it.”
She said that once she gets out of jail, she hopes to work with the elderly and get a fresh start in life, this time as a “better person.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Doyle told the judge that embezzlement is, by nature, theft of money that someone was trusted with. But what made this case stand out, he argued, is the number of victims.
With the entire Choiniere family crowded into the courtroom behind him, along with several of employees, Doyle told the story of just how much the business has struggled over the years, as it has become harder and harder to maintain the farm supply business. He explained how the Choinieres have had to take out big loans that they’re still making huge interest payments on. All the while, they had no idea Dwyer was siphoning money out of their accounts each month.
“How can you watch your employer have to borrow money just to make ends meet, while you’re cooking the books and taking money for yourself?” Reiss asked.
Jim Choiniere told the judge there were times when his sons questioned how Dwyer could afford her lifestyle with the salary they paid her. But Choiniere said he waved them off because he was “clouded by trust.” He said he had planned to be retired by now, but that is no longer possible.
Choiniere addressed Dwyer directly before he sat down.
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“Jennifer, when you’re in jail, as you close your eyes each night, think of this: You will never be forgiven by me or my family.”
Finally, Reiss walked the lawyers through the sentencing guidelines, noting that the embezzlement charge would be increased several levels because the amount stolen, which is estimated at between $1.5 million and $3.5 million, was an abuse of trust and caused the victims “significant financial hardship.” The sentence was also lowered several levels because of Dwyer’s apology for her actions, and her lack of a criminal history.
“Dig deep in yourself, face forward, and live a life that shows you put this behind you,” Reiss said in closing. “No one is going to benefit if you stay stuck in this mess you’ve created.”
With that, she sentenced Dwyer to 51 months in prison. Dwyer is expected to self-surrender on March 24 to begin her sentence.
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