Prominent people who engage in serious criminal behavior must be held fully accountable.
As a general proposition, we're not inclined to challenge the day-to-day decisions local prosecutors make when working out plea agreements in criminal cases.
But there are limits. The recent case of former University of Illinois bands director Robert Rumbelow produced a negotiated result that is a grotesque assault on the basic concepts of fairness and reason.
The office of Champaign County State's Attorney Julia Rietz irresponsibly and unforgivably allowed Rumbelow to plead guilty to a single felony charge in return for what is, in effect, no punishment.
Rumbelow was sentenced to two years of conditional discharge, a form of probation with no reporting requirement. He'll pay no fine. He'll perform no community service. He'll spend no time behind bars.
After a brief stop at the probation office to provide a mandatory DNA sample, Rumbelow caught a plane out of town.
In contrast, a former local nursing home administrator last week was sentenced to four years in prison for embezzling nearly $100,000 from 18 elderly victims.
There are always differences in the details of criminal cases and the character and background of defendants. But the sentence for the nursing home administrator, 55-year-old Pamela Britt, seems far closer to a proper result than Rumbelow's wrist slap.
The Britt case was prosecuted by the state's attorney general's office. But Rietz's office routinely incarcerates the flotsam and jetsam of society who engage in theft, burglary and shoplifting.
While there is no reason to suspect any impropriety, there are substantial grounds to question, once again, Rietz's judgment.
For those unfamiliar with the details, the Rumbelow case represents another example of a scandal in high places — the upper echelon of the UI's widely respected music program.
Rumbelow joined the UI in 2010 and was paid a handsome salary — $140,175 in 2012-13. That apparently was not enough because an investigation revealed that Rumbelow systematically was selling musical instruments and depositing the proceeds in his personal bank accounts.
Rumbelow paid the UI more than $85,000 in restitution after he was caught, and there are indications the UI may have to pursue additional payments through the civil courts.
Whatever the ultimate value of the missing instruments, this was a major financial crime. The 48-year-old Rumbelow pleaded guilty to a single charge of theft in excess of $10,000.
There's little doubt that Rietz and Mark Lipton, Rumbelow's lawyer, will argue that Rumbelow's plea to a felony charge represents significant punishment. They'll say what lawyers often say — that Rumbelow will be required to go through life with a scarlet "F" attached to his record and reputation.
A felony conviction is significant, but certainly not dispositive. Further, it was less a concession to prosecutors on Rumbelow's part than a concession to evidentiary reality. After he was caught red-handed, Rumbelow concocted a wholly incredible story that he never intended to keep the money. Although he now has acknowledged criminal intent, Rumbelow initially claimed through his lawyer that he intended to donate the money anonymously to the UI. Common sense says that would have been a tough sales job.
A felony conviction is the absolute minimum prosecutors could have demanded — the real argument should have been between a term of imprisonment or a sentence of felony probation that included conditions like a fine, community service and jail.
Although a first offender, Rumbelow is not deserving of the special consideration he received. His case was replete with aggravating factors. He was a well-compensated, well-educated member of the UI community who used his position of trust to steal from taxpayers.
This was no isolated event that could be attributed to a momentary lapse of judgment. This was a carefully planned, long-running scheme by someone who not only knew what he was doing, but knew better. Rumbelow sold valuable musical instruments and deposited the money in his accounts over and over and over again. If he hadn't been caught and forced to resign last summer, it's more than likely Rumbelow would still be pursuing his criminal enterprise.
This kind of egregious criminal behavior requires serious punishment. Why? Because equally or less serious behavior by people lower in the social ladder is punished more harshly on a routine basis.
This plea agreement is so generous it brings the criminal justice system into disrepute. It's an indefensible disgrace that should sicken those who believe in equal justice before the law.