|By Nancy L. Othon, South Florida
Sun-SentinelMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Jul. 31, 2007 - Donna Duffer grew up going to the racetrack with her parents and learned how to play poker the way most people learn a language.
Years later, she said, her online gambling got so uncontrollable that she couldn't stop herself from stealing from the Palm Beach County Convention and Visitors Bureau.
"The only thing I'm not sorry for is I got caught," said Duffer, 55, after pleading guilty Monday to grand theft and money laundering charges. "I wish I was stopped years ago."
In three years, the money she stole from the bureau -- where she was the company's controller -- ballooned to more than $1.5 million before bank officials found irregularities in the financial statements.
Despite testimony from a psychologist who described the effects of compulsive gambling and Duffer's teary apologies, Circuit Judge Lucy Chernow Brown sentenced Duffer, of Royal Palm Beach, to 10 years in prison and ordered her to begin serving her sentence immediately.
Brown denied a request from Duffer's attorney that she be allowed several days to get her affairs in order and make arrangements for her husband, who suffers from heart disease. She also ordered Duffer to pay $1,579,469 in restitution.
Duffer's sophisticated scheme continued until she had forged 225 checks and was ultimately caught, Brown said. It wasn't until then, Brown said, that Duffer sought help for her gambling problem.
Duffer, who cried during the testimony of her husband and of a fellow former gambler, showed little emotion at the sentence. After the hearing, Assistant State Attorney Michael Rachel called Brown's sentence "well-reasoned."
"When you steal that much money, it's crying out for 10 years or more," Rachel said.
Duffer's attorney, Sue Foreman, argued for extended probation and house arrest, pointing to Duffer's cooperation with police and the lack of treatment available in prison for a gambling addiction. She also argued that the way Duffer committed her crimes was not sophisticated -- the openness of her methods was almost a cry for help.
But Rachel countered that creating checks, forging names and filing false tax returns was not unsophisticated. Rachel also urged Brown not to allow Duffer to use an addiction to gambling as an excuse.
"Whatever name they want to call their excuse, the fact of the matter is that the theft in this case is off the charts," Rachel said. "Reputations have been smeared, lives have been hurt."
Sentencing guidelines called for at least five years and nine months in prison. Duffer faced as much as 60 years.
Jim Stuber, the bureau's interim administrator, said the bureau owes more than $1.2 million in federal taxes and penalties from Duffer's actions. The bureau has pending lawsuits for negligence against Warren "Mac" McLaughlin and Lee Davis, the former chief executive and vice president for finance, respectively, who were forced to resign.
Stuber also testified that the bureau's reputation has been sullied. Employees who go to trade shows to promote Palm Beach County find that people want to talk about the theft, not tourism, he said.
"They're having to explain it's just one rotten apple," Stuber said.
He also read a statement from Linda Leinwol, the bureau's bookkeeper, who said Duffer "single-handedly" placed a major strain on her life. As the lone survivor of the finance department, Leinwol worked long hours with auditors and officials in the aftermath of Duffer's firing.
"Nobody wants to see anyone go to jail, so it's a sad day," Stuber said later. "But it did show that the judge took very seriously the scope of the offense and its effect on a lot of people ... and on the public's trust."
Monday's hearing also included testimony from former gambling addicts, including Arnold Wexler, who now treats compulsive gamblers.
Duffer is self-motivated to stop gambling and help other gamblers, Wexler said. She is a member of Gamblers Anonymous and attends at least two meetings a week.
Michael Duffer, 31, described his mother as a selfless, caring woman who has shown remorse and does not deserve prison. Family members declined to comment after the hearing. Foreman said only that she was surprised by Brown's sentence.
During her brief time on the witness stand, Duffer likened gambling to a roller coaster.
"Not unless you walk in these shoes do you know what's it's like to just be on a roller coaster that you can't get off of and it keeps going around," Duffer said. "Then you lose, and [you think] 'Oh no, it's not a fluke, you're going to win it back.' And you keep trying to win it back."
But that's a myth that time with Gamblers Anonymous has taught her, Duffer said.
"You never win it back."
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