Guilford women sentenced to prison in Women's Gifting Tables case

New Haven Register/August 13, 2013

By Susan Misur

Hartford, Connecticut -- A pair of Shoreline women received multi-year jail sentences Tuesday for their leadership roles in the Women's Gifting Table pyramid scheme after making tearful apologies in court for inflicting harm on others.

Judge Alvin W. Thompson imposed a six-year sentence on Donna Bello, who started the pyramid scheme in Connecticut, and a 4.5-year prison term on Jill Platt, with each also receiving three years of supervised release at the end of their terms.

The women, both of Guilford, will surrender into custody Oct. 15 and pay restitution totaling $32,000 to five women who lost money in the tables. Bello must also pay a $15,000 fine.

Bettejane Hopkins, the third woman arrested in May 2012 in connection with the scheme, is set to be sentenced today and pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to defraud the IRS in December.

Attorneys for Bello and Platt said they plan to file appeals. While Jonathan J. Einhorn, who represents Platt, had no comment after the sentence. He contended during court that Platt was a victim similar to other table participants.

Norm Pattis, who represents Bello, called the result “an outrage.”

“They’ve put gifting table participants in prison for 4.5 to six years. When was the last time you saw the government pursuing predatory bankers?” Pattis said after court.

But Assistant U.S. Attorney Douglas P. Morabito said a jail sentence was important not only because Bello and Platt misled participants and targeted women “in dire financial straits,” but also because it may serve as a deterrent to women still operating tables in Southington.

“It’s a crime, and it went on for several years, and is one that wreaked havoc on the Shoreline community,” said Morabito, who scoffed at Einhorn’s assertion that Platt was a victim.

Sentences for Bello and Platt stem from a 17-day trial this winter in which a jury convicted them of wire fraud, conspiracy to commit wire fraud, conspiracy to defraud the IRS and filing false tax returns.

They initially faced up to 14 years in jail.

Women joined the gifting tables by paying what they were told was a tax-free “gift” of $5,000 to a high-ranking member and then recruited other women. As more joined, members climbed the table’s four levels before reaching the highest status and receiving $5,000 from eight women. Once they received $40,000, they left the table or rejoined.

The government said someone is always left on the bottom and that there aren’t enough people to keep the structure going.

Many women testified they used child support checks, retirement money, credit card advances and money for bills to pay the $5,000 to join a table and never made back the money. One woman ended up enduring foreclosure proceedings after being involved in tables.

Thompson said that while the government estimated Platt caused a fraud loss of $1.4 million, he reduced the calculation to $882,500 based on what transactions could be proven. As for Bello, the government had estimated a fraud loss of $1.5 million, while Thompson brought it down to $1.3 million.

Both women, who never addressed the court before, said they never intended to hurt anyone, although Platt admitted she joined a table to make money for $2,300 monthly insurance payments. Her painting business was hurt by the economy, which made it difficult to continue paying for insurance and medicine for her husband, she said. She joined a table after Bello brought the idea to the state and many others had joined.

Others eventually considered Platt the “second-most knowledgeable” about the tables, according to Thompson, and she assisted in recruiting and training others, while also advising them on how to avoid sending up “red flags” to the IRS.

“My intent was to help others who were in similar situations, who needed more money to survive, quite frankly,” Platt said, later adding that a friend who recruited her told her tables were legal.

With a son and other families in the courtroom, an emotional Platt added, “I wish to apologize now for all the time, resources and effort of federal people and to my poor family who already suffered so much, and to have to put them through this is more than any mother would want to do to her children.”

Her family had previously dealt with deaths and illnesses of family members.

Bello said she had seen the tables as a “safe environment” where women supported each other and helped others in the community, but that she “kidded” herself and “deceived others.”

“I still struggle daily with how something I thought could be so good turned out to be something disastrous for my family and those who participated in gifting tables with me,” she said, adding that she is “heartily sorry” and has learned from the experience.

She said she is worried about leaving behind her husband, once-prominent New Haven businessman Joel Schiavone, along with her children and grandchildren, while she is incarcerated.

“I am deeply anguished by the pain and anxiety experienced by the women of the gifting tables. They were good souls, loving companions and didn’t deserve what happened to them,” Bello said, at times struggling to get the words out as Pattis stood by her at the courtroom podium.

She plans to sell her home to pay for restitution, back taxes and the $15,000 fine.

Though both defendants were visibly upset Tuesday about their roles, Morabito said they joked about possibly going to prison while still participating in tables.

Bello, Platt and other high-level participants were heard during trial on a secret recording talking about potential legal consequences.

Morabito pointed out a part in the transcript where Platt says they would get “free meals and a cot. Maybe we can all get the same (prison)wing.”

He said the women “made light” of the situation while knowing there was an attorney general investigation.

Still, Pattis and Einhorn attempted to argue for short or no sentences. Einhorn said Platt believed the tables were a legitimate enterprise when she first started, but acknowledged she eventually should have known something was amiss.

“There’s no question the time came when Jill Platt should have known better, that there’s no free lunch,” Einhorn noted.

Both attorneys attempted to use each other’s clients to help their own. Einhorn went on to say there’s “a world of difference” between Platt and Bello, since Bello started the tables in Connecticut, and Platt joined later after a friend told her they were legal and reviewed by an attorney.

Later, Pattis said Bello showed more remorse than Platt and that he would “not have been happy” if he were Platt’s lawyer.

But Thompson noted that many women lost money as a result of Bello and Platt’s actions and read emails written by Bello and Platt that showed they focused on monetary aspects of the tables and ways to stay out of jail.

“This is not the crime of the century,” Thompson said. “But I think for people who are victims, it’s probably the crime of their lifetimes.”

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.

Educational DVDs and Videos