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Thursday, February 28, 2013

San Mateo Embezzlement Cases Prove How Screwed Up the Bail System Is

Posted By on Thu, Feb 28, 2013 at 6:30 AM

click to enlarge Anthony Freda
  • Anthony Freda

In late 2011, two women were charged with embezzling more than $450,000.

From 2009 to 2011, Joanne Seeney, who worked as finance director for the San Mateo County Mosquito and Vector Control District, and her bookkeeping assistant, Vika Sinipata, allegedly stole the money from the organization by giving themselves fake time off and extra pay at a higher rate. They each faced multiple felony counts, including theft of government funds and destruction of public records.

Seeney's trial is scheduled for April. Sinipata pleaded no contest to the charges earlier this week, as the Chronicle reported.

Here's where it gets twisted: Seeney, the boss, has been free on bail since at least June; Sinipata, the assistant, has been in county jail the whole time.

See Also: Barred from Freedom: How Pretrial Detention Ruins Lives

The reason for this is quite simple. Seeney was able to post her $250,000 bond (which most likely would have required paying a bondsman $25,000), and Sinipata was not able to post her $150,000 bond.

And there's this: In 2011, while on leave from her job, Seeney pleaded guilty to embezzling $568,000 from ConforMIS Inc., a medical supply company she worked for a couple of years before getting the mosquito control position. She served prison time.

So, the high-ranking county official with a previous embezzlement conviction on her record awaits trial at home, while her assistant sits in jail. Ladies and gentlemen, your pretrial detention system!

As we detailed in a November feature story, Barred from Freedom, bail amounts are often based off of a county's bail schedule, which lists suggested figures for each charge. The result is a bail system in which freedom is determined not just by a person's perceived risk to society but by the wealth to their name.

The issue isn't that Seeney and Sinipata should both have awaited trial behind bars, nor is it that they both should have been free. Rather, reform advocates would argue, each of their freedom -- as they are innocent until proven guilty -- should have been based on non-financial factors, such as their perceived danger to the public or their flight risk.

There are deep consequences to this inequality. It is much harder to fight your case when you're in jail. Also, it sucks being in jail. As a result, some defendants decide to just expedite the whole process and plead guilty or no contest.

Correction: an earlier version of this post said that the women were employed by San Mateo County. This is not the case. San Mateo County Mosquito and Vector Control District is not a government agency.


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Albert Samaha

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