Former county commissioner denies culpability as sentencing date approaches
McALLEN — Her sentencing date is nearly two months away. But the wrangling over how much time — if any — former Hidalgo County Commissioner Sylvia Handy should spend in prison has already begun.
The federal government continues to maintain that she concocted an elaborate scheme to avoid paying for housekeeping and babysitting services between 2001 and 2007 by putting her undocumented domestic help on the county payroll.
But in court filings last week, Handy’s defense shot down prosecutors’ descriptions of these so-called “ghost” government employees who never did any actual work for the county.
The commissioner never knew most of the women working in her home were in the country illegally, wasn’t aware they lied about their legal status to land county jobs and made no money off of their illegal employment, her attorney Al Alvarez wrote in an April 26 filing.
The dispute sets up an argument over what exactly Handy did and didn’t know and how much it hurt county taxpayers. The outcome of that fight could land her in prison for up to 10 years or let her off without spending a day behind bars.
“(Sylvia Handy) did not create a ghost employee scheme nor did she utilize funds from Hidalgo County,” Alvarez wrote. “Any employees of the county were hired by the county’s human resources department and were paid by the county treasurer.”
Handy, 52, pleaded guilty to one count each of tax evasion and conspiracy to harbor an illegal immigrant in March. But in entering her plea, she kept her admissions of guilt to a minimum.
The unusually detailed 65-page indictment in the case accused the four-term commissioner of putting the undocumented women who worked in her home on the payroll of her Precinct 1 office so that she wouldn’t have to pay them out of her own pocket.
To cover up her scheme she provided the women with fraudulent identification documents, conducted sham interviews and claimed credits on her federal tax returns suggesting that she was paying the women for their domestic work herself, prosecutors allege.
While the counts to which Handy pleaded only involved one of those illegal workers, she maintained during her re-arraignment hearing that both violations of the law were unintentional.
She claimed the child care tax credit under a false name not to hide the fact that her babysitter was an undocumented immigrant but because she had forgotten to change the name on her tax forms from that of a previous woman she paid to watch her children, she said.
As for immigrant harboring, Handy wasn’t aware of the worker’s lack of legal status when she helped her get a county job. And despite being here illegally, the woman dutifully performed the tasks of a precinct maintenance worker during the time of her employment, her attorney maintained.
U.S. District Judge Ricardo Hinojosa balked at these heavily qualified admissions during the March 8 hearing and warned the now-former commissioner to come to her sentencing prepared to accept full responsibility.
“The court’s not interested in you not admitting things that are so obvious anyone can see it,” he said. “If you don’t want to plead guilty just say so, but don’t stand there and lie about it.”
Sentences in the federal system are determined after the government prepares an advisory recommendation to the judge and defense lawyers have had a chance to object to prosecutors’ interpretation of the facts. While a defendant may plead guilty to only specific counts, federal judges are given broad leeway to consider other related criminal conduct when settling on a final sentence.
So while Handy’s attorney carefully selected the tax evasion and conspiracy counts to which she eventually pleaded, many of the government’s extraneous allegations against her could come into play in Hinojosa’s decision.
Alvarez, her attorney, has challenged a number of those accusations in objections filed with the court, including:
>> government claims that the commissioner tried to influence potential witnesses against her during the run-up to her trial. Alvarez argues that while Handy was told to have no contact with witnesses, no specific names were ever mentioned to her;
>> allegations that she provided fraudulent documents to help the women land county jobs. The lawyer denies this and maintains that ultimately it was the county’s human resources staff who failed to identify the documents as fake;
>> and accusations that the women never did any work for the county, bilking taxpayers out of more than $200,000 in salary and retirement benefits. Alvarez insists that each of them did actually perform the duties that came with their county jobs.
“There were no financial losses to Hidalgo County when an employee did the work, even though they had a false identity,” he wrote.
But as her June 23 sentencing date approaches, Handy herself seems to be attempting to hedge those bets — standing by her relative innocence through her attorney, yet attempting the show the judge’s she’s ready for whatever he hands down.
“I accept full responsibility for my actions,” she wrote in affidavit she filed with the court last week. “I am truly sorry for the trouble I have caused the government, family and myself.”
Handy’s sentencing is scheduled for June 23.
Jeremy Roebuck covers courts and general assignments for The Monitor.
Editor’s Note: This is the second convicted felon who has told Federal Judge Ricardo Hinojosa that they are only half guilty, half pregnant. (The other felon is Arnulfo Olivarez, insurance felon convicted of bribery). What is the Judge to do? He must feel tremendous anxiety in having to pass judgment on such complicated cases. What would Solomon do?