Linda Gomez, 67 received less than half the 30-month imprisonment punishment sought by federal prosecutors after a long and emotional hearing presided by U.S. District Judge D. Lowell Jensen at the Robert F. Peckham U.S. Courthouse and Federal Building in downtown San Jose.
Attended by nearly a dozen religious women from the Order, some who spoke in favor of Gomez, the magistrate chose less prison time after the prosecution couldn't prove her acts of fraud and embezzlement had directly harmed vulnerable aging sisters who reside at the Prospect Road facility.
Judge Jensen ordered Gomez to pay restitution to the Order in the amount of $109,000-plus and to self surrender in 90 days or by Dec. 4 to the authorities to begin serving her jail time at a corrections institution in Arizona, where she currently resides with her family.
Gomez, also known as Linda Surrett, pleaded guilty in October of 2012 to 17 counts of fraud after admitting having embezzled more than $100,000 from the religious order.
A 2011 grand jury indictment included 14 counts of wire fraud and three counts of mail fraud against her.
U.S. Attorney Joseph Fazioli, in a nine-page sentencing memorandum, had sought the stricter punishment saying Gomez squandered the stolen money on frivolous shopping sprees and described the crime as "one of pure greed" taking the money despite the fact that she and her husband had a combined income of $100,000 a year.The indictment against Gomez states that while working at the convent from 1987 to 2010 in various administrative positions she embezzled cash and charged personal purchases such as kitchen appliances for her home, jewelry, shoes, purses and other personal items to a convent credit card.
Formerly of Sunnyvale, and now residing in Chandler, AZ, Gomez worked at the convent as director of food services and the manager of the on-site convenience store. She also made purchases for the 75 Catholic nuns and 60 lay employees at the convent, according to the indictment.Support For Gomez
Four members of the religious order spoke about Gomez' good character and her long years of service at the convent. They were followed by her daughter, who cried inconsolably before Judge Jensen pleading for leniency.
Similarly, Assistant Federal Public Defender Cynthia C. Lie argued for no jail time, but house confinement, probation and community service given her age and having an ill husband at home.
Lie described Gomez as a woman who had devoted her life as a caregiver of disabled children, an ill husband with cancer, a son who was addicted to heroin and tending to the religious women "above and beyond the call," of her position, in some instances spending between 12 and 18 hours at their sick beds. She also said Gomez had spent unpaid holidays with the sisters to take care of their needs.
"This was a stress-response, a compulsive pattern behavior that emerged after Ms. Gomez, through extraordinary hardship in her personal life and stresses in the workplace, responded completely inappropriately," Lie said. "She acknowledges that, but to suggest in some way that it negates her service ... and the benefits she brought to the community of the convent, it's significantly unjust."
Among the religious women speaking in support of Gomez was Sister Joan Doyle who said she had worked with her from 2001 to 2009, while she was in charge of the women at the convent during those years. She praised the woman's "spirit and dedication" to the sisters. "She was so much more than an employee to many at the convent. She was trusted and deeply cared for. She was generous ... I believe she didn't intend any harm to the sisters or the staff."
Doyle asked the Judge for compassion in the sentencing and suggested she be placed on probation, only.
Gomez' daughter, too, pleaded with the judge for leniency while crying inconsolably. "My mom worked at the convent for 25 years. It was her second family ... my mom took them (the sisters) to doctors' appointments around the clock. She would leave no matter what time of day to be with them," she said, sobbing.
She said when Gomez committed the crime her father had been diagnosed with lung cancer and she had spend many nights without sleep taking care of him who was sick from the treatments and then reporting to work at the convent to care for the sisters.
Simultaneously, her two brothers were struggling, she said. One recovering from an addiction and another losing his job. "She was being crushed under the pressure. Sometimes people under extreme stress will act in uncharacteristic and puzzling ways ... "
None of that stress, however, compares to what Gomez has been through since the allegations went public being reported in media outlets, she said.
"The humiliation she's endured ... it's killing her," she said, adding that if Gomez went to jail her father would lose his caregiver and wife of 50 years. "I'm so afraid that if I go home today and tell him she's going to jail he will not be able to handle the news."
Background on the Case
Gomez was employed at the convent in Los Gatos from 1985 to 2010 and was authorized to make purchases for the 75 Catholic sisters and 60 lay employees such as food, equipment and supplies. Prosecutors say the vast majority of the elderly sisters were retired, elderly or required living assistance.
The convent provided a company VISA credit card to Gomez to pay for the expenses and she made purchases using such a card, her PayPal account and petty cash and vendor accounts, according to the sentencing memorandum.
Between March 2008 and her resignation in May of 2010, Gomez admitted to embezzling more than $110,000 using various methods, including obtaining fraudulent reimbursements or credits for products falsely claimed she had purchased for the convent and the nuns, according to prosecutors.
She purchased items online and had them shipped to a family members' address. The religious women then paid for the purchases and Gomez submitted expenses reports falsely stating she had made convent-related online purchases.
As supposed proof of these purchases, Gomez attached to her expense reports a printout of the viewing page of an online shopping card for various web pages, prosecutors explained. In reality, she had not actually made the purchases for which she received the payments, the added.
The probation officer assigned to the case, who attended the hearing, said Gomez stole from infirm religious women who take a vow of poverty earning $200 a month.
Reaction From the Order
After the sentencing hearing, the Order released the following statement: "Now that the court process has been completed, the Sisters of the Holy Names pray for peace and healing for all who have been and will continue to be affected by this."
Sister Marcia Frideger, a member of the Order's leadership team in California, said the crime has caused angst and pain for the religious women.
When the indictment came out, Frideger said she spoke to the women gathered at the Los Gatos convent chapel before the news was made public and the nuns had stricken looks on their faces and expressions of disbelief.
"They were stunned because they hadn't honestly believed she was guilty," Frideger said. "The pain they experienced wasn't about a dent on a sister's personal budget, but the sense of betrayal they felt from someone they had thought as having their best interest at heart."
Frideger added the crime has caused consternation among the Order and much pain and challenges to their future fundraising efforts. "For our donors to trust us they need to have the confidence that any money they give to [the Order] is being used for the causes for which they gave it. When something like this occurs, it creates distrust of us as a charitable organization."
As a result of the theft, the Order has lost donors, she said. "This wasn't a small slip that caused little damage, but a series of events that had numerous negative consequences for us as a religious community."
Apology From Gomez
Dressed in a black sweater and skirt, Gomez apologized to the court, the sisters and the administration of the Order, "for anything ... I can't even think of all I want to say, but I'm sorry for any harm. I know I harmed them ... and I never meant to."
Gomez said the Order became her "second family" and she "cared for them and loved them very much."
She continued: "I'm just sorry. I'm hurt more by the fact that I've alienated myself from their friendship and everything over the last three years because they were a part of my life and my family's life for so many years."
Gomez also said she took responsibility for the crime and had tried to pay back the money she had taken and has intention of returning the funds. "I just feel that there's no words that I can say to make up for what I did, even though I'm the one that did it and I'm not blaming anybody for it. It was my decision, but I never did it with any intention of harming anybody and now I know that I did and I'm truly sorry."