Ithaca, N.Y. — A TCAT employee accused of stealing nearly $250,000 from the local non-profit bus company was suffering from an out-of-control gambling addiction, her lawyer says in court records filed earlier this month.

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Pamela Johnson, 54, of Cortland, was arrested in April after embezzling roughly $247,000 from the public piggy bank, according to law enforcement.

(Related: Inside the unravelling of woman’s TCAT embezzlement scheme.)

Johnson now plans on pleading guilty to grand larceny in the second degree, a felony, “in full satisfaction of all charges, with the sentencing left to this court,” her lawyer said in a motion filed Dec. 5.

The lawyer, Frank Policelli, argues that his client should not face jail time to make it “possible for her to continue as a productive member of society, thus making the payment of restitution possible,” according to court papers.

Policelli says that Johnson is essentially a good person who suffered from “compulsive … pathological” gambling problems.

Pamela Johnson

“Whether compulsive gambling can be medically classified an addiction or not, labels are irrelevant; the tragic result is the same,” Policelli says of Johnson.

“Pamela Johnson is a compulsive gambler, a pathological gambler, in layman’s terms, a gambling addict … While most people can gamble responsibly, some people are not able to keep their gambling under control.”

‘It’s been very painful’

As Johnson’s lawyer argues his client should be treated with leniency, TCAT continues to struggle with the repercussions of the former accounts assistant’s actions.

“We have not received any restitution yet,” said TCAT spokesperson Patty Poist on Tuesday, “because it’s still going through the court process.”

Police arrived at TCAT to begin investigating the crime on Friday, March 21.

Johnson’s scheme had begun to unravel with a few simple questions about errant invoices. It turned out, according to court records, that she was diverting massive chunks of money into a mysterious company named “JTD Enterprises.”

That caught the eye of TCAT officials who had never heard of the company. They later learned what JTD stood for: “Johnson Tool Design.”

Authorities eventually announced that Johnson diverted nearly a quarter-million dollars into an unauthorized bank account, according to a press release from the Ithaca Police Department. The embezzlement occurred over four years and 65 fraudulent checks, according to court records.

Losing nearly $250,000 has sorely hurt TCAT, according to Poist, the spokesperson.

“We’re a not for profit; we’re heavily publicly subsidized; and we’re in need of funding for bus replacements, for our operations, for capital needs,” Poist said.

“So it’s been painful. It’s been very painful for our staff.”

Gambling problem

Court documents reviewed by The Voice aren’t explicit about how much of the $247,000 Johnson may have gambled away.

But Johnson’s lawyer is clear that gambling is the reason for the thefts.

“She would risk personal and professional relationships and commit crimes to enable her to continue her gambling,” the defense attorney says in court documents.

Johnson would go to an unnamed casino “from a Friday to a Monday,” according to records. Johnson told the probation officer that she “deliberately coded invoices in a way that would be questioned ‘because (she) knew she couldn’t stop.’” Her family was unaware of what was happening.

“It must be understood that Ms. Johnson is not using her gambling addiction to excuse her actions or avoid accepting responsibility for her conduct,” the defense attorney says.

The lawyer also says that “statements from the victims …. should not be a dominating factor in deciding an appropriate sentence.”

“The use of such statements does little to further the traditional goals of sentencing: deterrence, incapacitation, rehabilitation and retribution,” the lawyer says.

Sentencing is scheduled for January.


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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.