THERE ought to be a special place in hell for greedy malefactors who live lavishly on the backs of society's downtrodden souls.

Rosalind Lavin, of Villanova, for instance, ran four personal- care homes for the physically and mentally disabled, the elderly and sick.

She helped support a life of luxury on her Main Line estate by using some of the residents' government checks - including veterans and disability benefits - to help pay her salary and expenses, according to U.S. Attorney Pat Meehan.

That would be your tax dollars and mine.

Yesterday, Lavin settled a civil case brought by federal prosecutors by agreeing to pay $700,000 to the government.

She did not admit wrongdoing.

Under the settlement, she's banned from ever running another personal-care home.

Three of the four facilities she and her now-deceased husband owned - two in Philadelphia and one in Media - lost their licenses and have already been shuttered.

The last one, Ivy Ridge Personal Care Center, in Roxborough, will be closed.

Which is a shame, in one way only.

Because I'd like to see Lavin forced to live in one of her facilities for a while, as part of the settlement agreement.

The facilities provided "grossly inadequate, dangerous housing and care," according to U.S. Attorney Meehan.

Residents had insufficient food, lived in "unsanitary, substandard" conditions, weren't given appropriate medications and had "inadequate and unclean clothing, linens and bedding," a federal investigation revealed.

So these folks were dirty and hungry and unmedicated, their needs unattended, while the Lavins thrived in her gated Villanova estate.

If that doesn't make your blood boil, you should worry.

Over the years, regulators who inspected the Lavin facilities found a woman lying in her own vomit, blocked exits, fire-code violations. A state regulator called one of the Lavin care homes the worst he's ever seen, according to the Inquirer.

The Lavins apparently weren't any better to their employees.

In 1998, they were ordered to pay $10,000 in civil penalties and $32,000 in back wages to 26 employes for alleged violations of the minimum-wage and overtime provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

It's difficult to prove theft or fraud charges against individuals who provide unconscionably poor care to the residents of nursing homes and personal-care facilities.

The owners protect themselves from direct responsibility with legal layers, and leave lowly orderlies and other wage-earners to pay the price when scandalous conditions are discovered.

That's why Meehan decided to institute civil, instead of criminal, proceedings against Lavin.

He thinks that halting the money flow and putting a seedy operator out of business will send a message that others will heed.

"We have a better avenue to be effective going at it civilly," he told me in a phone interview yesterday, after a morning news conference in which he announced the settlement.

"Strategically, we think we can have a better impact in the industry by people appreciating what we can do is shut down the income stream to get the outliers out of the industry.

"It gives us the ability to have the kind of death-sentence impact on an institution by cutting off the mother's milk of federal funding," he said.

So, sure, it's reassuring that Lavin is out of business.

But it galls me that she gets away with paying money and not admitting wrongdoing, while others who committed less harm are imprisoned.

Just this week, for instance, a personal-injury lawyer was sentenced to two months in prison, three months of house arrest and probation for filing fake insurance claims in a federal case.

A crime, for sure. But no one went hungry, cold or dirty because of it.

Somehow, it doesn't seem that justice has been served by the wealthy Lavin paying $700,000.

Better she live in one of her squalid facilities and experience what the poor souls suffered under her ownership.

And let them be housed in her Villanova estate for a while.

It seems only fair. *

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