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Ex-CFO of Maryland Legal Aid sentenced to 30 months

A tearful Benjamin L. “Bennie” King Jr. apologized to his family and former employer Legal Aid before being sentenced to 30 months in prison Tuesday for embezzling more than $1 million from the organization over a decade.

A federal judge in Baltimore sentenced the former chief financial officer of the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau to the shorter end of the 30-37 month guideline range, based on a recommendation from federal prosecutors.

King asked the court for mercy in his sentence.

U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake said despite King’s remorse for his actions, the impact of his crime on Legal Aid in Maryland and nationwide was too serious to allow him to serve his sentence in a halfway house or at home, as suggested by his lawyer and longtime friend, Warren A. Brown.

She said the sentence was meant to deter others from similar schemes.

Legal Aid Executive Director Wilhelm Joseph Jr., who spoke passionately about the betrayal felt by Legal Aid and the needy people it helps, said he accepted the judge’s sentence.

“It’s another step in getting this horrific experience behind us,” he said.

Joseph said the stolen $1.14 million could have been used to offer legal help to lots of people over the years, including those most in need — the victims of abuse, the elderly and children.

King was responsible for keeping the books at Legal Aid from 1978 through 2008. He conceived of an embezzlement scheme, whereby Legal Aid was overcharged for office supplies.

According to court documents, King had received kickbacks from office-supply vendors prior to meeting co-conspirator, Wendell “Sonny” Jackson, who ran a check-cashing business. King would write checks to Baltimore Office Supply, a shell company he had Jackson set up, and would get Jackson to buy supplies elsewhere.

The plan was hatched in 1997. The duo would skim the difference between what Legal Aid had budgeted for supplies and what Jackson actually bought them for.

King kept 85 percent of proceeds, which he used on gambling and strip clubs. Jackson, who received a 15-month sentence in November for his part in the crime, took a 15 percent cut of proceeds.

In 2008, King left Legal Aid, but no one knew of his scheme until months later when employees discovered the discrepancy between supplies received and money paid out.

On advice of counsel, Legal Aid reported the problem to the U.S. Attorney and the Inspector General of the Legal Services Corp., which provides federal grants to promote equal access to civil justice for poor and disadvantaged people.

In his comments at sentencing, Brown spoke of his profound disappointment in his friend’s behavior and said, “There’s really no excuse for it, whether it’s alcoholism or narcissism, or a desire to live a life his salary would not provide.”

He added, “We all came up together, we struggled together, we all found Legal Aid together. We were proud of the work we were doing.”

Legal Aid employs about 300 people in 13 offices statewide. It has a budget of more than $20 million, funded entirely by grants and donations.

King got choked up as he apologized to his three children — a lawyer, a police officer and a teacher — and his wife for his reckless behavior.

In addition to his prison term, King will have three years of supervised release following his prison term. He will also have to pay restitution to Legal Aid, although no payment schedule has been set.

“I think it’s important that he turn his pockets inside out to make Legal Aid whole,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Barbara S. Sale.

Sale said King’s crime was “driven not by need, but by greed.”