If anyone could have stopped the fraud at Philadelphia Academy Charter School, a federal judge said yesterday, it was the school's former board president.
U.S. District Court Judge Eduardo C. Robreno praised Rosemary DiLacqua as an intelligent and educated police officer, with more than 25 years of distinguished service and a reputation for toughness, who was a specialist in detecting fraud. She could have told school founder Brien N. Gardiner and former chief executive Kevin M. O'Shea "enough is enough," Robreno added.
Instead, DiLacqua, 51, accepted $34,000 in secret payments from the two and kept quiet.
In a courtroom packed with police officers, DiLacqua's large family, and charter school parents and administrators, Robreno sentenced her to a year and a day in federal prison and fined her $10,000 for her part in a scheme to defraud the school.
There was stunned silence in the courtroom when the sentence was announced, because many of her supporters had asked the judge to spare her prison time.
But Robreno said only a prison term would send a message to charter school operators and board members across the state that defrauding of taxpayer-funded charter schools would not be tolerated.
DiLacqua pleaded guilty in July to a count of mail fraud, theft of honest services, for accepting the secret payments from Gardiner and O'Shea and then giving them raises and lucrative contracts. On one occasion, she accepted $10,000 in cash in a bank bag.
DiLacqua, who recently retired as a Philadelphia police detective, said she was blinded by her trust in Gardiner, who had helped her autistic son.
"I didn't see past the friendship that became such a betrayal," she said.
Federal guidelines called for a prison term of between 24 and 30 months.
Mark E. Gottlieb, her attorney, had urged Robreno to spare DiLacqua prison "due to her extraordinary commitment to civic and community work," her laudatory police record, and her impaired son's "extraordinary dependence" on her.
He gave Robreno a video showing DiLacqua interacting with her son, Matthew, 19, who is severely autistic, in their home in the Northeast.
All 11 of DiLacqua's witnesses, including police officials, praised DiLacqua's law enforcement career and described her unstinting care and commitment to her son. Elliott Atkins, a psychologist who examined her son, said the young man likely would regress if separated from his mother.
"We are disappointed that the judge did not impose house arrest," Gottlieb said after court. "However, I'm grateful that he was able to see his way through to impose a sentence which is obviously a departure from the guidelines."
In his sentencing memorandum, prosecutor Derek Cohen asked Robreno to send DiLacqua to prison for 30 months to provide a "clear deterrent to others who might consider abusing their positions to commit frauds."
Cohen said DiLacqua's 25-year career as a police officer was "both a mitigating and aggravating factor." He said her police background made it more difficult to understand her actions.
"A sentence of probation for a school board president - and a police officer - who accepted a bag of cash, failed to disclose it, and then approved lucrative contracts for her benefactors sends the wrong message," Cohen said.
Lisa George, one of two Philadelphia Academy parents who voiced concerns about the school in late 2007, said that as board president, DiLacqua had the authority and the duty to prevent the crimes. George chided DiLacqua for calling herself a victim when she entered her guilty plea in July.
"These crimes were committed under her authority and flourished with her guidance," George said in court. "You are not a victim, Mrs. DiLacqua. You are an accomplice."
DiLacqua, who spoke for 45 minutes, described how she met Gardiner, an elementary school principal, while on a quest to find the best education for her son. She was among the parents who helped found Philadelphia Academy Charter School in 1999, and served as board president for eight years.
Although DiLacqua said she once believed Gardiner and O'Shea made the loans and gifts to her out of friendship and affection for her family, she now realizes they had other motives.
"They were manipulating me, and I fell for it," she said. "I was duped by that."
But DiLacqua insisted she had not known about the pair's elaborate schemes to defraud the school. And she said the school's auditors and attorneys misled her.
Robreno said he was impressed by the testimony of DiLacqua's witnesses and the more than 50 letters sent on her behalf. But he said he was disturbed by DiLacqua's efforts to downplay the seriousness of her crime and to blame it on others.
"Any effort to spin this crime . . . as a lapse in judgment" was repudiated by the court, he said.
DiLacqua's sentencing came 20 months after The Inquirer reported parents' allegations of fiscal wrongdoing at the charter school and an ongoing investigation by the Philadelphia School District's inspector general. The paper found that a web of business interests enabled Gardiner and O'Shea to earn more than most area superintendents.
The federal probe was launched shortly afterward and found that the school had been defrauded of more than $900,000 in taxpayer funds.
In May, when the federal indictments seemed imminent, Gardiner committed suicide.
O'Shea, 50, pleaded guilty to mail fraud, theft, and income-tax evasion and cooperated with federal investigators and was sentenced to 37 months in prison.
O'Shea began serving his term Dec. 7 at the Federal Detention Center in Center City while awaiting an assignment from the federal Bureau of Prisons.
DiLacqua will remain free on bail for 45 days before she begins serving her sentence.
Philadelphia Academy, which opened in 1999, enrolls 1,200 students from kindergarten through 12th grade on its campuses at 11000 Roosevelt Blvd. and 1700 Tomlinson Rd.