MILFORD – Disgraced former tax collector Karen Guillet didn’t have much to say for herself after pleading guilty Tuesday to stealing from the town of Oxford and betraying thousands who entrusted her with their tax dollars for 24 years.
The 63-year-old former beloved town employee grabbed the hand of her husband, Nil (pronounced Neal), put her head down and walked briskly past reporters and town officials at Milford Superior Court minutes after state prosecutors recommended she spend the next five years in prison and repay the town some $242,903. That is the amount the she stole from the town through an embezzlement scheme while serving as Oxford's elected tax collector.
Aside from answering benign questions asked by Judge Richard Arnold, Guillet’s only remarks about her actions came in the form of a two-sentence prepared statement read to the media by her attorney, Dominick Thomas.
“My client is extremely remorseful for her actions and for any harm to the Town of Oxford and to her family,” he said. “It is her intent to make restitution to the town and accept the decision of the court.”
Guillet will learn on Oct. 29 exactly what her sentence will include. Under a plea bargain agreement, she plead guilty to the most serious charge lodged against her, first-degree larceny, a Class B felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison. The state’s attorney’s office offered her 12 years in prison with a sentence suspended after she serves five years. At the Oct. 29 court date, her attorney could argue for a lesser sentence.
Judge Arnold told Guillet in no uncertain terms that one of the most important aspects of the plea arrangement is that she pay the full amount of restitution to the Town of Oxford.
If Guillet fails to abide by that obligation, the court could add more time to her prison sentence, Arnold said.
Oxford Selectman Dave McKane, who attended Guillet’s court appearance Tuesday, said many of his constituents want to see the former tax collector pay back the town.
“When it didn’t look like restitution was going to be made, people were ready to throw the book at her,” he said, adding that he was a friend of the Guillet family for many years. “But I think justice is served. …Any significant adjustment of the sentence would not be welcomed by people in the community.
“When someone betrays the public trust like this, a message has to be sent,” McKane said.
First Selectman George Temple, who also attended the hearing, said he does not anticipate that Judge Arnold will change much about the terms of the state’s offer.
“She’s going to jail; she will be wearing an orange jumpsuit,” Temple said. “There’s no adjusting that.”
Temple said he will make a victim impact statement on behalf of the town at the sentencing. He said he will also send the court correspondence that he has received from angry taxpayers, and he encourages Oxford residents to do the same.
One person who has already written a letter is not even an Oxford resident. But Lisa Biagiarelli has a keen interest in the outcome of this case.
Biagiarelli, the municipal tax collector in the city of Norwalk and chairman of the Certified Connecticut Municipal Collectors Committee, attended Tuesday’s court proceedings with two other friends in the field to show support for justice being served in this case.
Biagiarelli wrote a three-page letter to Judge Arnold, which she shared with the press, in which she advocates for a harsh sentence. Speaking for herself and not the organizations she represents, Biagiarelli said she wants a strong message to be sent to the public and to other tax officials that theft and other public deceit will not be tolerated.
“I have followed the Karen Guillet case intently, and am very concerned about the message that a plea bargain with weak terms will send to the tax paying public and to my fellow tax collectors,” she wrote. “It is my personal and my professional opinion that jail time is merited in this case.”
In her letter, she called Guillet’s action an egregious abuse of power by a trusted public servant.
“There is much blame to go around in this case,” she said. “However, the most potent blame lies with Karen Guillet, who knowingly took money and then concealed her wrongdoing for many years.”
Guillet, a fancy dresser and overtly generous person who often flaunted her money and said she had rich family members who bequeathed her money, hid her theft for years through what is called a money floating, or lapping, scheme. She took checks from certain tax accounts and shifted them to cash accounts that she stole from to make it look like her daily cash batches were always balanced.
Guillet used the money on luxury items such as trips to casinos, hotels and spas; two dog walkers whom she paid $100 apiece a day; luxury cars; high-end clothes; expensive meals and other amenities. A prosecutor on Tuesday described her lifestyle as lavish and said her American Express card bills were often higher than her yearly household income.
Guillet’s crime spree came to a abrupt end in the final months of 2009 when she was turned in to town officials by assistant tax collector Sharon Scinto, who discovered money was missing from the tax office and immediately notified town leaders. Oxford officials say they contacted the town's bank, Naugatuck Valley Savings & Loan, and began the investigation right away. Once they felt they had enough probable cause - about six weeks later - town officials questioned Guillet, whom town officials say admitted to taking about $3,000 and later said she was "glad it was over," according to court documents. About six months after that, Guillet officially resigned. She was arrested on Nov. 30, 2011, after a two-year investigation by state police.
On top of first-degree larceny, Guillet was originally charged with six counts of forgery, but those charges were not included as part of the plea agreement.
Many town officials and residents say they believe Guillet stole far more than $242,903. The town has filed a civil lawsuit, which states she stole more than $670,000 from the town over a six-year period from 2003 to 2009. And former First Selectman Mary Ann Drayton-Rogers, who was in office when the theft was revealed, said she believes Guillet may have stolen more than $1 million.
Biagiarelli agreed, and said in her letter to Judge Arnold that Oxford will never know how much money Guillet stole.
“And their tax collector’s office will take 15 years or longer to recover its integrity,” she said. “The public servants now working in that office will bear the burden of her reputation even longer.”
And, she said, Guillet’s reputation will live for many years. Biagiarelli, who teaches certification courses for municipal tax collectors, said the Guillet case is now part of her curriculum for sections that deal with internal controls, fraud prevention and ethical behavior.
“This case is very distressing and everyone involved in municipal tax collection in the state is very concerned about it,” she said. “It’s a real black eye for our profession.”