CA State Bar embezzler goes to prison

Calif. State Bar Embezzler Gets 32 Months in Prison
Mike McKee/The Recorder
February 08, 2010
With a light kiss on the right cheek from one of her lawyers and no opportunity to say goodbye to her elderly parents,
Sharon “Shari” Pearl went to prison late Friday for embezzling more than $615,000 from the State Bar of California.

Alameda County Superior Court Judge Morris Jacobson sentenced the State Bar’s former director of real property operations to two years and eight months, after finding that the 52-year-old woman had used the stolen money to live a “very comfortable lifestyle well above her means.”

“The loss here is mammoth,” Jacobson said during a 90-minute hearing on Friday in People v. Pearl, 161610. “It’s just
absolutely mammoth.”

The judge ordered restitution of about $615,000, plus payback of about $167,000 for audit, internal investigation and outside counsel costs, and around $117,000 for the Franchise Tax Board. Pearl has already paid back about $393,000 of the restitution, mostly by selling her house for around $180,000 and getting a $200,000 boost from family members.

“She has not paid back every shopping spree at Nordstrom’s or lunch at One Market,” Jacobson said. “But she has paid back a substantial amount.”

The prosecution had sought four years’ imprisonment, while Pearl’s defense lawyers pushed for 16 months.

Pearl, who pleaded no contest during a December hearing, was charged with one count of embezzlement and six counts of tax evasion. Her theft was uncovered early last year after she had worked with the State Bar for about eight years.

The Bar also has a civil suit pending against Pearl.

San Francisco-based Senior Assistant Attorney General Ronald Smetana, representing the State Bar, said during Friday’s sentencing hearing that Pearl — who collected rent from tenants in the State Bar building at 180 Howard St. in San Francisco — had been stealing from the agency for at least five years.

The State Bar originally estimated that $675,000 had been embezzled, but revised that figure to about $655,000 after further investigation. An impasse almost developed Friday because Pearl’s attorneys — Mark Cohen and Leon Mezzetti of Fremont, Calif. — argued that the State Bar could only prove a loss of about $555,000.

Jacobson got both sides to agree to a compromise of $615,000 during an in-chambers discussion. Before sentencing, Smetana accused Pearl of lacking remorse, noting that in letters to the judge she and her lawyers said the divorced mother’s acts were motivated in part by the needs of her adult son and daughter.

“Ms. Pearl says she did it for her children,” Smetana said. “But as the record shows, she took care of herself along the way.”

Jacobson agreed during sentencing, citing Pearl’s use of much of her ill-gotten gains on expensive shopping trips, high-priced restaurants and ritzy hotels.

Cohen defended his client, saying that she has experienced major regret and remorse, and cooperated fully with the AG’s investigation. He also said that put in perspective with other thefts, hers was not that bad.

“This isn’t a situation where she was feeding a drug habit,” he said.

Cohen also took exception to Smetana’s assertion that Pearl had been seeking new jobs without telling her potential
employers about her pending criminal case.

But Jacobson quickly stopped him, saying that Pearl’s interest in a management job “raised a red flag” for him.

“Let’s put it this way,” he said. “If I was planning here on probation, I would order her not to take a job like that.”

Jacobson said that in reaching a sentence he had considered Pearl’s lack of prior criminal history, her community involvement and letters of support from two rabbis, her father, mother, sister and a couple of friends.

He said he also took into account the fact that Pearl was living on an extra $100,000 a year that didn’t belong to her.

“That was wrong,” he said.

As sheriff’s deputies prepared to take Pearl into custody Friday, her sister asked if Pearl’s mom and dad, who were in the courtroom, could say goodbye to her.

The judge’s stern answer: “No, ma’am!”