Sonja Cunningham of Maumelle, Arkansas, who admitted embezzling $90,000 from a Little Rock dentist she worked for and considered a friend, was sentenced Friday to nearly three years in federal prison.
Cunningham pleaded guilty Feb. 27 to an embezzlement charge and a charge of conspiring to distribute a controlled substance. She admitted that between Jan. 2, 2008, and Oct. 21, 2011, while working in the dental office of Dr. James E. Moore Jr., she stole $90,034.83 by depositing checks payable to him or his office into her own bank account.
Cunningham also admitted that during part of that time, from October of 2010 through March of 2011, she forged Moore's signature on prescriptions she wrote for a patient she had befriended and later for others whose names were provided to her by that patient.
The prescriptions were all for oxycodone, an addictive painkiller. Cunningham admitted helping the patient and his friends obtain 960 of the 30 milligram tablets altogether.
From the witness stand Friday afternoon in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Leon Holmes, Cunningham apologized to Moore, who sat in the gallery with his attorney.
She told the judge, "Our families had a relationship. ... I messed up."
Standing beside defense attorney Ron Davis of Little Rock, Cunningham said she has been "in and out of bankruptcy," and that she is trying to find a way to extricate her house from her bankruptcy obligations and sell it, so that she can turn the proceeds over to Moore. She acknowledged that she hasn't yet paid back any of the stolen money.
Tricia Harris, an assistant U.S. attorney, told the judge that Cunningham's actions created more than a financial hardship for Moore. She said he found out about the forged prescriptions when he was questioned by the state Board of Dental Examiners.
"He was told he could lose his license," Harris said. "He was believed to be the one who wrote the oxycodone prescriptions. He spent a lot of money to clear his name."
Harris said the money Moore spent defending himself and ensuring that he could retain his dental license was money he had set aside for retirement, and now, "he is close to retirement age."
Harris argued for a sentence within the penalty range recommended by federal sentencing guidelines -- 33 to 41 months -- and specifically requested a sentence of 36 months.
Davis cited Sonja Cunningham's lack of a criminal record and the fact that she has a 19-year-old son in college who depends on her financially as reasons for a probationary sentence. He also argued that if she didn't have to go to prison, she could try to get her house out from under bankruptcy obligations and could continue working, both of which would enable her to make restitution to Moore more quickly than if she had to serve time in prison.
Davis noted that Sonja Cunningham is estranged from her husband.
Harris pointed out that a presentence investigation showed that Cunningham used some of the stolen money to buy expensive cars. She noted that Sonja Cunningham and her husband had a Jaguar, a Corvette and a Mercedes-Benz.
Davis also took exception to references in a presentence report that Cunningham used part of the stolen funds to send her son to a private school. Davis noted that the son "did receive some sort of scholarship."
Holmes rejected the probation request, imposing a 33-month sentence and a mandatory order that she make full restitution to Moore.
He told Sonja Cunningham to report to prison by Sept. 2 and said she must use 50 percent of all funds available to her while in prison to begin paying off her $90,034.83 debt. He ordered her to serve three years of supervised release and said that during that time, she must apply 10 percent of her gross income to restitution.
Holmes noted that a prison sentence was needed to deter others "who are in a position over other peoples' assets" from stealing from them. He said he also considered that Sonja Cunningham's crime "wasn't a single act of dishonesty in a moment of weakness" but involved intention, repeated acts over a period of years and an effort to conceal her actions.