As his mom was dying, he stole $40,000 from his union to see his future wife

The Packaging Corporation of America operates the Wallula plant on Highway 12, about 15 miles southeast of Pasco, producing corrugated cardboard and packaging materials.
The Packaging Corporation of America operates the Wallula plant on Highway 12, about 15 miles southeast of Pasco, producing corrugated cardboard and packaging materials. Tri-City Herald

The secretary-treasurer for a Wallula labor union was reeling from his mother’s terminal cancer diagnosis when he reconnected with a childhood friend.

Jason A. Richard let his guard down and opened up to the friend like he’d never done before, but he struggled to afford the frequent trips between Walla Walla and her home in Phoenix.

That’s when Richard said he started tapping into the accounts he managed for United Steelworkers Local Union 12-990.

He embezzled $40,000 during a 10-month period in 2015, almost depleting the union of its operating funds.

On Thursday, Richard and his lawyer asked for mercy from a federal judge. They pointed out how Richard had no criminal history before this case, has since paid back one-quarter of the stolen money and needs to stay employed to continue with restitution payments and keep health insurance for his wife, a breast cancer survivor.

But Judge Sal Mendoza Jr. denied their request for probation with no prison time, saying he needs to avoid unwarranted sentence disparities.

"I have sentenced individuals who have committed this sort of crime in the past as well, and there is one case that comes to mind that is very similar," he said. "In that case I did not give them probation as is being recommended here. So when I look at this case … it is the judgment of this court that you, Mr. Richard, are hereby placed in custody for six months.”

Mendoza admitted he was not ready to make a decision after a 30-minute hearing, and set the case down for one hour before continuing with the sentencing.

In addition to the six-month term in a federal prison, Richard was ordered to do two years on supervised release. He was warned that if he violates any of his conditions of release, he can be locked up for that additional time.

Richard, 42, pleaded guilty in December in U.S. District Court in Richland. The standard range for one felony charge of embezzling labor union funds is 10 months to one year and four months in prison.

Assistant U.S. Attorney George J.C. Jacobs III had recommended a sentence at the bottom of the range. He cited Richard’s position of trust to handle the union’s money, including signature authority on the bank accounts and his ability to make debit card purchases.

Mendoza explained there were a number of reasons why he went below the guidelines.

“The efforts you have made … to have restitution paid to the victims in this case is important, and again the fact that you have lived your life without any criminal history, any criminal activity,” the judge said. “Those factors are important, but the court cannot overlook what happened here. And in my judgment, I think it’s the right sentence.”

Richard, 42, was not taken into custody Thursday. He has lived in Arizona for three years, and was given permission to turn himself into the Federal Bureau of Prisons at a later date.

Richard became a union officer for the labor organization in December 2014. His duties included managing all aspects of the 130-member union’s finances.

paper plant
The Packaging Corporation of America operates the Wallula plant on Highway 12, about 15 miles southeast of Pasco, producing corrugated cardboard and packaging materials. File Tri-City Herald

The union members are employed by the Packaging Corporation of America, which operates the Boise Paper mill on Highway 12, about 15 miles southeast of Pasco. The plant produces corrugated cardboard and packaging materials.

It was only after Richard left to take a job with Amazon Corporation in Arizona that local union auditors discovered his embezzlement. The case was turned over to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Labor-Management Standards for a criminal investigation.

The embezzlement became a federal crime because the union engages in an industry affecting interstate commerce and was subject to the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959.

Jacobs, the federal prosecutor, said Richard had found a loophole in the local union’s internal safeguards. While the union required two signatures on checks, the bank only required one signature.

Between January and October 2015, Richard wrote four unauthorized checks to himself and made 74 debit card purchases and 25 transfers for personal use, said Jacobs.

He admitted his wrongdoing when interviewed by federal investigators and made two payments totaling $9,400 toward restitution. His guilty plea came just two months after he was charged in federal court.

Jacobs noted that Richard is a first-time offender who has two biological children and another through marriage, and has no evidence of drug or alcohol abuse.

"That all speaks well of him so you wonder why, if he's led a crime-free life, what was it that made him get sticky fingers and reach into the union's cookie jar, so to speak?" said Jacobs.

Attorney Jeremy L. Huss from Scottsdale, Arizona, said the embezzlement happened during an extremely hard time in his client's life. His mother's death caused Richard to make decisions he otherwise wouldn't have, Huss said.

Richard told the court he wants "to make this horrific situation right for the people I have hurt. I betrayed my fellow union members when I was appointed with a position of trust."

He admitted being embarrassed and disgusted with his actions, but said his then-friend and now-wife has been his rock for the past 4 1/2 years and he's in counseling to cope with his mother's loss.

Richard is a safety specialist with Amazon, investigating injuries to the more than 4,000 associates working at his facility and conducting audits to ensure compliance with the law and internal policies.

He said he feels like he makes a difference in people's lives every day, and had plans to reimburse the stolen money through both overtime pay and budget commitments at home.

Mendoza opted not to impose a fine, saying he’d rather Richard focus on restitution to the victim.

Richard still owes $30,649, including $10,000 for an insurance claim.

"Prosecuting union embezzlement and other white-collar crime continues to be a high priority for our office," U.S. Attorney Joseph H. Harrington said later Thursday in a prepared statement. "... We will continue to work closely with our law enforcement partners to aggressively prosecute financial crimes in the Eastern District of Washington."