Supporters and the attorney for former city councilor Twanda Carlisle begged Common Pleas Judge John Zottola to be lenient before he sentenced her Feb. 4. Each repeated the mantra that "We all make mistakes," adding that the councilwoman was sorry for stealing taxpayer money and had accepted responsibility for her actions.
But when it was her turn to speak, Carlisle herself didn't seem that contrite -- despite facing the possibility of 110 years in prison on the public corruption charges she was convicted of.
"I am earnestly sorry for any and all misdoings. I'm not perfect," Carlisle told the court. "Maybe, I did do something wrong. But I was councilor, staff and bookkeeper. Maybe I didn't do things in the proper manner."
In November, Carlisle pleaded "no contest" to charges that she paid tens of thousands of dollars to friends including staffer Sheryl Pinson-Smith, Darlene Durham and Lee Otto Johnson for services -- some fulfilled and some not. Carlisle kept part of the money for herself as part of the kickback scheme, depositing it in her personal and campaign accounts. She is slated to begin serving her sentence March 10.
But at her Feb. 4 sentencing, Carlisle still didn't admit to intentionally diverting public money through her friends for her own personal use. Minutes before Zottola sentenced her to 12 to 24 months in jail, she claimed that if she ran afoul of the law, "It was a bookkeeping error. I did not set out to do wrong."
Zottola could have sentenced Carlisle to probation or up to 12 months in jail -- the minimum sentenced prescribed by the state-guideline range for first offenders. However, Zottola gave Carlisle the maximum one- to two-year sentence, according to the guidelines.
"I have followed your political career and you had great potential," the judge told Carlisle. "You have squandered all of that.
"... Your day of reckoning has arrived."
Zottola said the citizens of Carlisle's council district -- which consists of East End communities hard hit by crime and a lack of economic development -- could have used the over $42,000 she stole. The people of District 9 "needed that money more than you did," Zottola said. He ordered all money repaid by Carlisle to go into a special fund for District 9; the fund will be distributed at the discretion of the district's new city councilor, Rev. Ricky Burgess.
Carlisle's co-defendant, Sheryl Pinson-Smith, was sentenced to 8 to 23 months in prison for kicking back public money to the councilor. Durham pleaded guilty last year and was prepared to testify against Carlisle, who pleaded no contest shortly after Durham's plea. Johnson is awaiting trial for his alleged part in the scheme.
Carlisle spent the money on many items including a fur coat, jewelry, electronics and vacations.
Depsite numerous requests for leniency, Assistant District Attorney Lawrence Claus said Carlisle's deliberate scheme and "total lack of remorse" warranted some period of incarceration.
"This was not one occasion where there was a lapse in judgment," Claus said. "[W]e're talking about more than 80 deposits into her personal and political accounts.
"Instead of the district getting this money," he added, "she goes out and buys a fur coat" -- a mink coat that Claus described as part of "a two-year spree of criminality."