Ignoring a joint plea for leniency, a federal judge sentenced former longtime Charlotte Catholic High principal Jerry Healy to three months in a halfway house Tuesday for embezzling more than $160,000 from the school and a related foundation.
U.S. District Judge Frank Whitney overruled a highly unusual recommendation from both the prosecution and defense that the 68-year-old receive probation and not be taken into custody.
Defense attorney Missy Owen and Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Zolot said that Healy, in losing his career and reputation and being banished from the Charlotte Catholic community, had suffered enough.
Whitney ruled otherwise. In doing so, he handed down a tougher sentence than what a former Charlotte-area community college employee received in federal court for stealing more money.
Neither the Diocese of Charlotte nor the high school foundation wanted to press charges against the longtime educator, who was a principal at Charlotte Catholic for 11 years and a diocesan employee for more than four decades. He resigned in 2014. Last year, he pleaded guilty to embezzling money from the school and foundation over a seven-year period leading up to his resignation.
The offense carried a maximum 10-year prison sentence. Citing federal sentencing guidelines Tuesday, Whitney said Healy’s actual sentence range fell between 18 and 24 months.
Court and diocesan documents say Healy wrote checks to himself and family members or had his assistant do it. Sometimes, he forged his assistant’s name. U.S. Attorney Jill Rose told the Observer that Healy falsely claimed that the expenditures were for “professional development” and “tuition assistance.”
“Healy stole money from the school and the school’s foundation and used it to enrich his personal lifestyle. Then he went a step further and created false entries to cover up his theft,” Rose said. “Through his actions, Healy … betrayed the trust of the donors of the Charlotte Catholic Foundation, the Catholic community and the parents and pupils of the school he was entrusted to lead.”
In all, Healy took almost $300,000 from school or foundation accounts, according to sources close to the investigation. He spent half of it on domestic and international plane tickets for his family, restaurant meals and household maintenance, sources say.
Owen, a Charlotte Catholic graduate, told Whitney her client took the money after “falling into severe financial distress.”
Yet, she asked Whitney to balance that crime against “a life spent looking out for the least around him … transforming and shaping the lives of the children and parents who came through that school system.”
Owen said he used some of the mishandled money to help students or families – paying school and medical expenses, supplying tutors and counseling. In one case, she said, Healy spent foundation money to move a family to a safer place.
Zolot said Healy also spent money on himself, a crime that demanded to be prosecuted. At the same time, he said the defendant has led “an exemplary life. … Not even the people he stole from can say anything bad about him.”
Given Healy’s admission of guilt, loss of career “and the public spectacle that this has turned into … there’s no point to punish Mr. Healy any further,” Zolot said.
When Healy had a chance to speak, he read from a prepared statement in a trembling voice and apologized for the harm he had caused.
“I stand before you as a man who has let so many people down,” he said. “All of my professional life, I have tried to do what was right. … There is no excuse for the harm I have caused the Diocese of Charlotte, the foundation, the school and the wonderful families that chose to send their students to CCHS. I have hurt my family and friends, especially those who are here.”
Whitney said he had never heard a case in which the prosecution did not push for a punishment, and he acknowledged struggling to find an appropriate sentence that balanced the good Healy had done with the severity of his crime.
But in announcing his decision, Whitney said Healy had taken on the responsibility of public leadership and failed – not in a one-time mistake but over a period of years. While Healy didn’t need to go to federal prison, the judge said, neither did he deserve to go free.
“Role models are supposed to lead by example, and in this area, you certainly did not,” Whitney said. “I have the responsibility of sending a message to other role models: You cannot do this. You cannot embezzle. A strictly probationary sentence is not appropriate.”
He ordered Healy to pay restitution to the Charlotte Catholic Foundation and the Diocese of Charlotte, even though diocese didn’t seek it, and placed him under two years of probation after his release.
That’s a tougher penalty than Mary Sherrill of Hickory received in federal court earlier this year. U.S. District Judge Richard Vorhees gave the former Catawba Valley Community College employee three years probation and ordered her to pay restitution after she embezzled almost $180,000 from the school to buy items to sell online.
Healy continues to draw significant support from many in the city’s burgeoning Catholic community. During his sentencing, some 15 former students, friends and family members sat behind him. Several wept openly.
After the sentencing, Larry Hartsell, Healy’s friend of 50 years, fought back tears outside the courthouse as he described how Healy had taught him how to live a life in service of others. He described how Healy had led fellow Belmont Abbey students into a local prison to play baseball against the inmates.
“Public suffering and humiliation is punishment aplenty,” the Mount Holly native said.
It’s unclear when Healy’s sentence will begin. He left the courthouse without comment and walked across West Trade Street with Owen and co-counsel Bob McDonnell to a waiting car.
Jerry Healy’s courtroom statement
I stand before you as a man who has let so many people down. All of my professional life, I have tried to do what was right and, more important, to do what was necessary for those entrusted to me to have a wonderful experience. As I have read the letters that so many took the time to write, while I was humbled, I was also sorry for letting them down.
I have had many tragedies in my life, but there is no excuse for the harm I have caused the Diocese of Charlotte, the Foundation, the school and the wonderful families that chose to send their students to CCHS. I have hurt my family and friends, especially those who are here to support me.
I have lost my daughter, family, my professional life and the trust so many had in me. While at times, I feel that I have nothing left, I continue each day to try and live the life that I should and hopefully, regain the trust and love for so many people who loved me.
CCHS has and always will be very special to me. They are and have been my family for a better part of my 44 years in education. I can never repay them for all they have done for me. I continue to pray that my actions do not take away from the good work done by so many people.
For all my actions, I am truly sorry.