By Terrie Morgan-Besecker firstname.lastname@example.orgLaw & Order Reporter WILKES-BARRE – The former owner of a title search company is facing 51 to 63 months in prison under federal sentencing guidelines following her guilty plea Tuesday to stealing nearly $2 million from her clients.
Elizabeth A. Sichler, 58, of Harveys Lake, entered the plea to one count of wire fraud during a brief hearing before U.S. District Magistrate Judge Malachy Mannion. Sichler was charged in June after dozens of clients of her now-defunct business, Priority Search, complained she had failed to pay off mortgages and other debts associated with property transactions. At Tuesday’s hearing, Sichler answered a variety of questions posed by Mannion designed to ensure she understood the ramifications of entering a guilty plea. She declined comment and attempted to shield her face from a photographer as she left the courthouse. Sichler was once prominent in political circles, serving as vice chairwoman of the Luzerne County Republican Party – a post she resigned once news of the investigation into her company became public in 2008. The sentencing guideline range for the crime is based on the amount of money involved and the fact she received a sentence enhancement because the offense involved a violation of public trust, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Barbara Kosik Whitaker. The guideline range is advisory, meaning a judge could sentence Sichler to less time or up to the maximum, which is 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Sichler came under investigation in 2008 after multiple clients complained she had kept money from buyers that was supposed to be used to pay off sellers’ mortgages and other outstanding property bills. The U.S. Secret Service conducted an investigation, which identified 92 clients who were defrauded from 2005 to 2008. Authorities say Sichler was able to conceal the thefts by operating a “Ponzi”-style scheme in which she used money from prior transactions to cover shortages in her accounts. The scheme began to unravel in July 2008 because of the downturn in the real estate market, which significantly reduced the number of clients, and thus cash, that was flowing into her office. Whittaker said most of the people defrauded have not recouped their money. Sichler was released on her own recognizance. Mannion ordered a pre-sentence investigation be completed by Dec. 6, but did not set a sentencing date.