HARRISBURG - Thea Tafner was apologetic at her sentencing in federal court Monday, saying she regretted having stole from American Hose Chemical and Fire Company. She was joined by her brother and attorney in asking for leniency.

Citing an "unusually difficult" case, Chief U.S. District Court Judge Yvette Kane nonetheless sentenced Tafner to 2 1/2 years in federal prison and ordered her to pay back more than $1.8 million.

"This is highly emotional for my family and the community. I realize there's no excuse for violating the trust of the community," Tafner, 56, of Danville, told Kane in Courtroom No. 4 on the eighth floor of the Ronald Reagan Federal Building. "There's no excuse and nothing I can say can change that."

During the 14 years in which Tafner was American Hose ambulance chairwoman, she opened a fraudulent bank account where she directed $3,712,203 in Medicare payments between Oct. 23, 2000, and Nov. 2, 2009, and used $1,816,045.13 for personal gain, federal prosecutors said when they charged her

on Dec. 23 with embezzlement of health care benefits.

Tafner pleaded guilty on Jan. 7, setting up Monday's sentencing. She reports to a federal prison at 2 p.m. Monday, June 20.

Tafner's attorney, Laurence C. Kress, of Duncannon, requested she be placed in federal prison in either West Virginia or Connecticut, but a decision has not yet been made.

According to federal guidelines, Tafner must carry out 85 percent - about 25 months - of the 30 month-imprisonment, at which the prison system may release her based on good behavior, Kress said.

Brother in tears

During the proceeding, Tafner asked the judge for forgiveness and noted that she has spent her life contributing to society and the community in different aspects, including in the public school education system, most recently as elementary principal in the Line Mountain School District before she resigned in January.

"I never intended to hurt others," she said during her address to the court, which took several minutes. "I cannot find the words to adequately express my regret."

Speaking in support of his sister, Carter Tafner, of Danville, who has health problems, said he has needed, and still needs, his sister to help him get to the hospital and with daily activities.

"I know it was bad - unbelievable what she did," he said in tears.

He said his sister admitted to the theft and didn't lie once the truth was revealed. He also asked the judge to consider the good things she has done.

'Life of its own'

Kress made the same argument on behalf of his client, noting numerous people wrote to the court in her support. He said the court should consider her history and characteristics and the positive impact she had as an educator and friend.

"She got in over her head at some point. It seems completely out of character and even took on a life of its own," Kress said.

While a specific reason for the theft was not addressed, Kress said Tafner used the money for a variety of reasons. In the face of financial pressures and a variety of stresses, she took action that destroyed her reputation and career, and significantly impacted the community in a way that will takes years to remedy, he said.

In the same way, he said, no matter what the sentencing, the impact on Tafner will never end because she has lost everything, including the respect and admiration of the community.

Kress, asked after sentencing about the suggestion that Tafner used some of the money toward health care for her family, said he wouldn't elaborate beyond what was said in court.

Victims speak

American Hose Attorney Michael Smith, Bloomsburg, provided a victim's impact statement and asked that restitution be made to American Hose because they believed no other entity was a victim of financial loss. Neither he nor American Hose President James Reed offered any more comment following the hearing.

Mount Carmel Mayor J. Kevin Jones represented the borough and asked the judge to sentence Tafner to the maximum of 10 years in prison.

"I am representing 8,000 victims in the borough and whole area," he said, comparing Tafner's theft to breaking into thousands of homes and taking money from every person.

It hurt everybody in the community, he said, including the company itself, which was forced to shut down its ambulance division in March 2010. He also noted the impact on Shamokin Area Community Hospital (SACH), which sued American Hose for failing to pay for the advanced life support services the hospital provided to the ambulance company.

SACH did not file a victim's impact report nor was it represented at the hearing.

The company's former billing agency, Cornerstone Adminisystems Inc., of Cumberland County, had planned to file a victim's impact report, but no one from the company was represented.

Among the approximately 15 to 20 people in the audience at Monday's proceeding were former American Hose Vice President Carl Froutz, American Hose member Paul Froutz, Mount Carmel Police Chief Brian Shurock, Line Mountain School Board member Dennis Erdman and several Line Mountain School District employees.

Judge cites difficulty

Before sentencing, Kane noted the difficulty of her decision, saying Tafner's background is positive compared with people who normally appear before her bench. Still, Kane said, the amount of loss was "staggering" and hurt the volunteer organization, jobs related to the service and an entire community.

Furthermore, she said, the victims are also Tafner's own family, and she noted the memory of Tafner's deceased brother, John Tafner, who was ambulance committee chairman at the time of his death.

Restitution details

While Tafner is charged with embezzling nearly $4 million, the court system determined she used the $1,816,045.13 for personal gain and was ordered to pay that amount back. The money will be distributed through the court.

She must pay $124,869 within 60 days and no less than $250 a month once she is released from prison. At $250, it would take almost 500 years to pay back the money, but that is the minimum established by the court, said Heide Havens, media and community outreach consultant of the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Fifty percent of her income should she be employed in the prison system would also go toward restitution.

While it was reported as part of the plea agreement that the government could not tap into Tafner's Pennsylvania Public School Employee Retirement System account, Kress said she will use that money to pay restitution. Kress said the government agreed not to force Tafner to use the money in exchange for her waiver of any appeal rights.

Tafner was in her 35th year at Line Mountain and spent last seven years as elementary principal. At the time of her resignation, she was making $80,538 and was contributing 6.5 percent of her salary to her pension fund while the district contributed 5.64 percent.

In addition to imprisonment and restitution, she was ordered to pay a special assessment fee of $100 and will be on two years supervised release after leaving prison.

The embezzlement charge could have carried a fine of $250,000, but that was not assessed, said Havens.

The case was investigated by the Office of the Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Prosecution was assigned to Assistant U.S. Attorney Christy H. Fawcett.

'Sad case'

Asked afterward if the sentencing satisfied him, Jones said, "Not entirely, but we knew this is where it was headed."

Meanwhile, Kress believes Kane did a good job at taking everything into account.

"It was a very sad case," he said.