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Family Lawyer Sentenced
April 18, 2014 permalink
Danielle Ross was the sole guardian ad litem for Lackawanna county Pennsylvania. When a child got involved in a custody case arising out of child protection or divorce, she represented the child. She has just been sentenced to a year in prison. For failure to faithfully represent her clients? No chance of that. It was for failure to cut Uncle Sam in on her $200,000 take. The bounty came from stealing both children and money from parents.
Attorney sentenced to one year in prison for tax evasion
She was applauded and vilified for representing children in child custody disputes, but in the end it was Danielle Ross' dishonesty about her income that led a judge to sentence her Wednesday to one year in prison.
The sentence, imposed by Senior U.S. District Judge A. Richard Caputo, was within federal sentencing guidelines, which called for 10 to 16 months in prison. But it was much harsher than the probationary term Mrs. Ross sought for her guilty plea to a tax evasion charge.
Judge Caputo received more than a dozen letters regarding Mrs. Ross, who from 2008 to February 2013 served as Lackawanna County's guardian ad litem - a court-appointed attorney who represents the interests of children in custody disputes. Most were from supporters, who portrayed her as a dedicated attorney who valiantly fought for the best interest of children. Others were from parents, who accused her of riding roughshod over their rights, forcing them to agree to unreasonable demands if they wanted to see their children.
While he reviewed the letters, Judge Caputo stressed the sentence was not a reflection of Mrs. Ross' performance in the family court system, but his desire to ensure just punishment and to deter others.
"Tax evasion is a serious offense. It's an act of dishonesty, plain and simple," the judge said. "My decision is to sentence you to 12 months. I think that is severe enough to get not only your attention, but the attention of anyone else who might commit this crime."
Mrs. Ross, 37, of Jermyn, pleaded guilty in December to one count of attempted tax evasion. Federal prosecutors said she failed to report more than $200,000 in payments she received in 2009 and 2010 from parents who were required to hire her to review their custody cases, resulting in a tax loss of $63,124. Her husband, Walter Pietralczyk Jr., pleaded guilty to filing a false tax return and is awaiting sentencing.
About two dozens spectators, including Mrs. Ross' supporters and critics, attended the sentencing at the federal courthouse in Wilkes-Barre. The case drew significant media and public attention based on complaints by parents that led to a state investigation into the county's guardian ad litem program 2011. The probe found multiple deficiencies, but no criminal wrongdoing. A grand jury investigation later uncovered the federal tax evasion.
Mrs. Ross, who wept through parts of the sentencing hearing, showed no reaction as her sentence was read. Her voice barely audible, she apologized to the court minutes before the judge issued his ruling, saying she regretted her actions and vowed never to repeat them.
Her attorney, David Solfanelli, sought probation or a sentence of home confinement, noting she is the mother of two daughters, 12 and 8, and that the crime was an anomaly in an otherwise exemplary life.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michelle Olshefski opposed the request, saying a prison sentence was warranted because Mrs. Ross was an attorney in a position of trust, which she violated.
Ms. Olshefski also noted Mrs. Ross initially denied responsibility, placing blame for the filing of the false tax return on her husband. The government originally did not plan to charge Mr. Pietralczyk, but was forced to do so after learning her defense was to blame him, Ms. Olshefski said.
While acknowledging Mrs. Ross' accomplishments, Judge Caputo said he found no extraordinary circumstances that warranted a departure from sentencing guidelines.
"Because someone lives a good life does not buy them the right to file a false tax return," the judge said.
The sentence drew a mixed response from courtroom spectators.
Katharine E. Wiener, a Kingston attorney who attended law school with Mrs. Ross, said she thought the sentence was excessive.
"I understand the judge is trying to deter other people, but she is not a murderer," Ms. Wiener said. "She is trying to move on with her life and correct her mistakes."
Bruce Levine, who claims Mrs. Ross unjustly denied him access to his children for more than a year, said he felt the sentence was justified. Mr. Levine said he assisted the investigation by providing financial documents to investigators.
"She ripped the soul from my family. She stole my money and stole my children," he said. "I'm satisfied to the extent she is going to prison and can no longer work with children."
In addition to the prison term, Mrs. Ross was ordered to pay $63,124 in restitution. She was directed to report to prison on May 12. She declined comment as she left the courthouse.
Source: Scranton Times-Tribune