Accountant sentenced to prison for embezzlement

URBANA — Neal Freeman offered no hint why he stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from the company whose owners had employed and trusted him for decades and no explanation to the co-workers who lost their jobs when the company went under.

"Not a day goes by I don't regret what I've done. I was at the company 31 years. Many of those people are my friends. That I've betrayed them in such a manner is something I have to live with the rest of my life," said the 59-year-old former accountant for Champaign Builders Supply Company.

Freeman was sentenced Tuesday by U.S. District Court Judge Michael McCuskey to 37 months in prison and ordered to pay restitution, back taxes, and assessments totaling about $1.05 million.

The company, located for 87 years at 30 E. John St., C, closed recently, unable to recover from the loss of the capital, which was compounded by the economic downturn during the recession. The losses were discovered by Marsha Elliott, the adult daughter of the late owner Don Blager, in January 2011.

Freeman was indicted a year later, in January 2012, on 34 counts of wire fraud and filing a false tax return for stealing about $860,000 from the company between August 2003 and January 2011 and failing to pay income taxes on the supplemental income that supported his lavish lifestyle.

He pleaded guilty in May. At the time of the plea, the company was still open, although struggling to stay afloat.

Freeman, 59, formerly of Mansfield, and now living in an apartment in Mahomet, was ordered to report to prison Jan. 15.

"It is a horrendous crime," Judge Michael McCuskey said, noting that Freeman had committed at least 286 separate felonies, representing the checks he wrote to himself from company accounts over the years.

Champaign police detective Pat Kelly learned that Freeman spent the money on such things as a $16,000 Bobcat, a motor home, a pickup truck, a sport utility vehicle and the transformation of a spare garage into a "man cave" with such amenities as a flat-screen TV, an entertainment center, wet bar, juke box, popcorn machine and pool table. He also traveled to NASCAR racing events.

"Neal, I wonder how many thousands of people would sign up for 37 months of jail for $900,000? I'll bet it would be a long line," the judge said, lamenting the low sentencing range that Congress has ordained for such white collar crimes as Freeman's.

Freeman pleaded guilty to all 34 counts and cooperated with the government in his prosecution, prompting Assistant U.S. Attorney Elly Peirson to recommend the sentence the judge gave, which was a few months shy of the maximum 41 months he could have received given his lack of criminal history.

"The closing of this company as a result of the defendant's greed is significant. He was well compensated but that was not enough for him. He had to supplement his income to the tune of about $200,000 a year," Peirson said.

She also asked that restitution of $860,622 be repaid to Gloria Blager, 87, of Bloomington, the widow of Don Blager. He died in March 2002 after owning Champaign Builders Supply for 29 years and left the business to his wife.

Peirson made no mention of the number of employees now out of work but in an earlier interview with The News-Gazette, Marsha Elliott of Hinsdale, who was on the board of directors, said the business had about 16 full-time employees in early 2012, down from about 24 years earlier.

Urbana attorney Blake Weaver, who was standing in for his partner and Freeman's attorney, Tony Novak, said he was perplexed by their client's motivation.

"The only thing I can grab is there's some treatment for depression in 2003. Whether that's the cause or the reason for his conduct, I can't say," said Weaver, agreeing that the restitution was Freeman's obligation and the prison was his punishment.

Noting that Freeman will be in his early 60s and have a felony conviction on his record when released, Weaver said "it's pretty apparent that full restitution will likely never occur."

So far, the government has obtained about $80,000 from the sale of properties that Freeman had in Mansfield. Peirson said they are still working on the forfeiture of a retirement fund he had.

In a victim impact statement read aloud at the sentencing, Lindsey Elliott, the grandchild of Don and Gloria Blager, wrote that white collar corporate crimes are far from victimless.

"The community lost a strong business, which employed its members for decades at a time, while paying them well and taking care of them like family. Those people are out of jobs now, in one of the worst economies our community has seen. My grandmother watched as the business her husband built with his heart and soul was destroyed. Destroyed because of greed. Where she used to see good in everyone, she can no longer trust. She considered Neal part of her family. Instead, now, she is saddled with undue stress and hurt," Lindsey Elliott wrote.

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Sid Saltfork wrote on December 10, 2013 at 5:12 pm

He could still run for Governor, or a seat in the General Assembly when he gets out.  I do not think that felons are barred from office in Illinois.  It would allow access to making restitution.

Local Yocal wrote on December 10, 2013 at 7:12 pm
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"...a few months shy of the maximum 41 months he could have received given his lack of criminal history....Freeman had committed at least 286 separate felonies...[while] stealing about $860,000 from the company between August 2003 and January 2011..."Neal, I wonder how many thousands of people would sign up for 37 months of jail for $900,000? I'll bet it would be a long line," the judge said, lamenting the low sentencing range that Congress has ordained for such white collar crimes as Freeman's....the business had about 16 full-time employees in early 2012."

So when McCuskey lowers the boom on the next drug dealer for decades because of mandatory minimums, the judge knows now what a crooked system the drug war really is.

 

tamlevine wrote on December 12, 2013 at 7:12 pm

My Father worked for Champaign Builder's Supply for 48 1/2 years. I wish he could have been in court the day Neal was sentenced and spoke of his crime for the first time. Neal said he lost a lot of friends...this is true. My Dad worked with him and considered him almost family & trusted him until the last weekend of Jan 2011 (same weekend as Dad's BD). Dad was frantic thinking Neal would kill himself as we all knew he would never be able to pay all of that money back. He spent 15 months worrying, maybe hating and trying to understand why he betrayed his employer let alone him. Growing up I spent a lot of time with Neal & his now crumbling family.  

Neal, I don't know if you are aware as to why Dad did not attend your sentencing. He passed away 11 weeks after being diagnosed with brain cancer~GBM (GlioBlastoma Multiforme) on June 2, 2012. I wish he could look you in the eye and try to understand why you did what you did. Why did you do it? Our Father and family managed to survive on his income alone until Mom went back to work about 15 yrs ago. We never complained about not going on long vacations or having the newest vehicle on the road let alone an RV. Dad always bought used cars. We didn't have a Bobcat (it would have been nice to shovel the snow away from their long winding driveway. We relied on friends to help and most of the time they showed up without us even asking.

Dad just simply wanted to win the lottery & enjoy his "forced" retirement...mostly due to lack of funds to keep him on board for just a couple of more years. Hmmmm, I wonder where those funds went to or more likely to whom they went to.

Neal, you have lost everything...your job, wife, home(s), self-respect, friends & all the materialist crap you stole for. Just one question...was it worth it?

Tammy (Warnes) Levine
RIP~Gene Warnes