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Last updated: February 15. 2013 6:08PM - 785 Views

Elizabeth Sichler is questioned by the press after exiting the Fedreral Courthouse in Scranton where she was sentenced on charges she stole money from clients who utilized her morgage broker business.Don Carey Times Leader Photo.
Elizabeth Sichler is questioned by the press after exiting the Fedreral Courthouse in Scranton where she was sentenced on charges she stole money from clients who utilized her morgage broker business.Don Carey Times Leader Photo.
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TERRIE MORGAN-BESECKER
tmorgan@timesleader.com


SCRANTON – She admitted stealing more than $2.3 million from clients who utilized her title search firm, but Elizabeth Sichler insisted Thursday that she did not personally benefit from the thefts.

Elizabeth Sichler is questioned by the press after exiting the Fedreral Courthouse in Scranton where she was sentenced on charges she stole money from clients who utilized her morgage broker business.Don Carey Times Leader Photo.



The money, pilfered from escrow accounts over a three-year period, was used exclusively to keep her floundering business afloat, Sichler told U.S District Judge William Nealon.
Sichler had hoped the purported circumstances surrounding the thefts, coupled with years of community service, would convince Nealon to depart significantly from the 51 to 63 months in prison that federal sentencing guidelines suggested.
Nealon was unswayed by the plea for leniency, however, sentencing the 58-year-old Harveys Lake resident to 55 months in prison. She was also ordered to repay all the money she took.
Sichler pleaded guilty in October to one count of wire fraud for embezzling $2,318,829 from 92 clients who had deposited money in escrow accounts she held.
The funds were supposed to be used to pay off existing mortgages and other debts associated with real estate closings she handled through her Kingston title search firm, Priority Search.
Prosecutors say Sichler was able to hide the thefts, which occurred from 2005 to 2008, by establishing a “Ponzi”-style scheme in which she would use money from new clients to cover shortages in the accounts.
The scheme unraveled after the housing market hit a slump, causing her business to decline significantly.
Sichler’s attorney, Marc Neff, spoke of her community involvement with her church and other civic groups, as well as individual acts of kindness she has shown neighbors.
Husband testifies
He and Sichler’s husband, Ed, also affirmed Sichler’s claims that the money was not used for personal expenses.
“We did not benefit at all in a change of lifestyle,” Ed Sichler told Nealon, noting he drives a six-year-old car with more than 100,000 miles. “That does not diminish what happened. I’m sure she is very sorry for that.”
Elizabeth Sichler showed little emotion as she addressed the court, telling Nealon she was “truly sorry” for the financial and emotional impact the thefts had on her clients.
“I should have closed the business rather than just keep funding it with funds that weren’t mine,” she said. “I have to live the rest of my life knowing what I’ve done.”
The apology was of little consolation to Catherine Hoover Mericle, one of two Sichler victims who testified at sentencing.
 Fighting back tears at times, Mericle spoke of how she borrowed money from her elderly parents in order to save her home, which was part of a divorce proceeding, from foreclosure.
 Mericle said she thought she would be able to pay them back once the home sold. She later learned Sichler had stolen the $87,000 that had been deposited with her pending distribution of the marital assets following her divorce.
 “My mom and dad worked their entire lives to put money away to have a nest egg for retirement. Now I can’t pay them back,” Mericle said.
 Speaking after the hearing, Mericle said she doesn’t believe Sichler’s claims that she did not use the money for personal purposes.
“You might lose a couple hundred dollars here or there, but you don’t know what happened to two millions dollars? That’s a serious problem,” Mericle said.
Nealon also appeared skeptical that the money was used solely to support Sichler’s business. He questioned Assistant U.S. Attorney Amy Phillips regarding what prosecutors had uncovered.
Phillips said investigators had difficulty tracking where the money went because such a large volume was coming in and going out of Sichler’s accounts. She said authorities determined the amount of theft by calculating the bills that had not been paid.
“We were unable to determine where specifically the money was diverted. If you don’t know the amount of money embezzled, you can’t follow where it went,” Phillips said.
Phillips said investigators determined there were a total of 92 victims, but 59 of those were reimbursed for their losses by title insurance companies.
Personal funds lost
The other 33 people, including Mericle, lost personal funds.
The restitution order requires Sichler to repay the individuals as well as the title insurance companies. Nealon directed that individual victims be paid before the companies.
Sichler was permitted to remain free pending her report date, which was set for June 27. She declined comment as she left the courthouse.
Mericle said life continues to be a financial struggle, but with the support of family she’s working her way through the difficulties.
“Today I decided, when I leave here, somehow, one way or another, I’m going to move on. I have to let it go,” she said.

 
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