TAMPA -- Former Bradenton Housing Authority Executive Director Wenston DeSue will spend one year and one day in federal prison for stealing money from the federal government, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.
After he is out of prison, DeSue will spend three years on supervised release. He also will have to pay $276,000 in restitution.
DeSue pleaded guilty in May to one count of theft of federal funds. He could have been sentenced up to 10 years in prison and fined $250,000.
In court Wednesday, DeSue apologized to BHA residents and to the Bradenton community for his crime. He said this experience has made him realize his wife and children from three other marriages "are the light of my life. I'm sorry for what I did ... I have nothing."
DeSue blamed his actions on "job stress" and a pending divorce at the time.
U.S. District Judge Susan Bucklew wasn't swayed.
"You've been married four times so you are used to divorce," she said. "What else?"
DeSue continued to say
his job was stressful, but as prosecutors pointed out, DeSue spent time in Jamaica, Busch Gardens, going to the movies and getting massages while billing the BHA for hours worked.
His activities were revealed during the investigation by the FBI and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, using video surveillance and tracking of movements through a GPS device agents placed on BHA vehicles used by DeSue and former BHA projects director -- and now DeSue's wife, Stephany West.
DeSue's father, William DeSue Sr., accompanied his son to court. The elder DeSue was the BHA director from 1996 through 2006 when the younger DeSue was hired to replace his father.
The younger DeSue and West were fired in October 2013, after federal agents raided BHA's offices.
While addressing the court, the elder DeSue said, "This is not an easy thing to listen to charges and an admission of guilt from my son ... My son is not a criminal."
Bucklew interjected by saying, "He is a criminal. He was adjudicated guilty."
Wenston DeSue entered a guilty plea in May as part of an agreement with prosecutors no more charges would be filed against him, who along with West bilked taxpayers for hours worked while on personal business.
The pair were romantically involved during West's tenure at the BHA that began in 2010 when DeSue convinced the board to create the projects director position specifically for her. Both were married to other people during their affair.
West, who was in court with DeSue on Wednesday, will be sentenced Sept. 9 for billing the BHA $104,000 in unearned salary and leave time. Under sentencing guidelines established by a presentence report, DeSue could have been sentenced to between 24 and 30 months in prison. Bucklew sentenced DeSue below the guidelines.
"Federal employees probably do this kind of thing every day, but that doesn't make it right," Bucklew said. "What makes this egregious is the agency you represented helps the poor and you were in a position of trust. It requires incarceration, and I think this sentence provides the necessary punishment."
DeSue's defense argued for five years of probation, saying the worse thing DeSue did was not to show up to work as required. But Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Peresie said DeSue is not a "gentleman thief as the defense is trying to argue. The impact of Mr. DeSue's fraud to the community of Bradenton is egregious."
Calculating DeSue's crime, Peresie said DeSue's theft in real dollars equates to "41 years of rent for low-income or elderly residents. This is a serious offense. This is serious theft. By his own words, he was the captain of the ship. But he wasn't navigating the ship. He was off getting massages."
Peresie said prison is necessary to send a message to federal employees, housing authority employees in particular.
"By Mr. DeSue's own admissions, this behavior started in 2006 and got progressively worse," Peresie said.
Bucklew agreed incarceration was necessary, but she steered away from the prosecution's recommendation of 24 months.
Bucklew also allowed DeSue to walk free from court under a volunteer surrender condition, meaning DeSue would be notified by the U.S. Marshal's Office of a day in the near future to report to prison.
In the final year of the investigation, prosecutors say DeSue and West missed work in excess of 50 percent of the time and yet filed payroll documents stating they were at work.
DeSue would fraudulently submit their hours and then cash in unearned leave and sick time at the end of the year when it should have been used for missed work.
BHA Executive Director Ellis Mitchell Jr., who was hired in November, has experience with HUD-related compliance issues.
"I suspected it would turn out this way," Mitchell told the Bradenton Herald. "I'm not shocked at all and I won't be shocked if West gets no time. I've seen worse cases than this where the people didn't get any time."
Mitchell said federal programs as a whole are wide open for corruption. The only solution, he said, is better oversight and to create harsh sentencing guidelines.
"They need to come up with more bite in the laws when it pertains to social services programs," he said. "As far as the BHA position, we are just happy to put this behind us and continue to move forward in a positive direction."
Mark Young, Herald urban affairs reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041 or follow him on Twitter @urbanmark2014.