By Van Smith
Published by City Paper, Dec. 22, 2010
To hear Tomeka Harris and her attorney tell it, Harris was a model citizen who suddenly and briefly turned to a life of crime. But that foray into the dark side, however fleeting, will have lasting repercussions for Harris, 34, who on Dec. 17 was sentenced by U.S. District Judge William Quarles Jr. to serve four years in prison and to pay more than half a million dollars in restitution for her crimes, which resulted in Harris pleading guilty in two separate criminal conspiracies. One involved encoding stolen credit-card numbers onto new cards used fraudulently to buy hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of goods, and the other concerned her aid in smuggling contraband for the Black Guerrilla Family (BGF) prison gang.
Wearing pants and a tunic, both khaki, and her hair straight, Harris’ appearance and demeanor at her sentencing was in striking contrast to her first appearance on the prison-smuggling charges, in April 2009, when she and two dozen others were indicted in a federal case targeting the BGF for drugs and violence. Then, Harris appeared not to have a care in the world about her predicament, clad in furry boots with her highlighted hair hanging down to low-slung pants revealing tattoos on her lower back. The confidence she exuded was derived perhaps from her success in life thus far: She owned Club 410, a popular and controversial Northeast Baltimore hangout considered a magnet for drugs and crume, and was a licensed mortgage and insurance broker who had no criminal convictions in her background. At her sentencing, though, having been incarcerated since, Harris looked worried and anxious as Quarles considered her penalty.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Tamera Fine, who prosecuted the bank-fraud conspiracy, told Quarles that Harris held a “management position” in the scheme, having “people she recruited” use stolen credit-card numbers provided by Harris. One of her co-defendants in the case, John Forrester, received a 39-month prison sentence, which Fine argued should be “the floor” for Harris, who was “far more involved” than Forrester. Another co-defendant, Michael Hayes, absconded and committed new crimes while the case was still pending, Fine explained, and so received an enhanced sentence, but his initial penalty of 87 months’ incarceration reflected his leadership position in the conspiracy. Thus, Fine concluded, Harris should receive a prison term somewhere between those meted out to Forrester and Hayes.
Fine added that Quarles should take into account several factors considering Harris’ sentence. First is the “seriousness of the offense,” in which Harris “became more and more involved” over time and “sent people out to use” fraudulent credit cards in a “fairly widespread” fashion, resulting in more than $521,000 in bank losses. The second factor, which Fine argued “merits a significant penalty,” is deterrence, since “there are more and more schemes of this sort in the community,” drawing in otherwise law-abiding people who are in financial straits and turning them into criminals. Lastly, Fine said Quarles should consider the fact that Harris “very quickly after her arrest accepted full responsibility” for her actions. Thus, Fine concluded that a sentence of five years or 48 months would be “appropriate”—and would give Harris “an opportunity to rejoin the community” as a “law-abiding citizen as quickly as possible.”
Harris’ attorney, Allen Orenberg, then rose to tell Quarles that “we don’t agree, obviously, with the government’s recommendations,” and contended that Harris had “more or less a minor role” in the bank-fraud scheme—though he said “we appreciate Ms. Fine’s remarks” about Harris’ rapid acceptance of responsibility. Quarles retorted that Harris “was fairly active and she did employ sophisticated means” in carrying out her part of the conspiracy, but Orenberg argued Harris spent only “six months” participating in it. “She is going to be punished,” Orenberg pointed out, saying she has already spent almost two years in prison. “We’re asking that she has the opportunity to go home in the near future,” he said, requesting that Quarles take into account “her total background.”
That background, Orenberg continued, includes “somewhat of a troubled childhood,” though Harris graduated from Baltimore Polytechnic Institute and attended Morgan State University, where she didn’t complete the coursework required for a degree. In 2000, he continued, she became a mortgage broker and also earned a license to sell insurance. Her career came screeching to a halt in late 2008, when she was charged in the bank-fraud case after making “a series of bad choices,” Orenberg said.
Quarles interjected at this point, saying Harris made “a rather lengthy series” of bad choices, resulting “in two criminal cases” against her in federal court. But Orenberg contended she was active in the conspiracy for “less than a year” and that she “fell into the abyss,” but had made “very good choices before that,” and that during her incarceration she’s been “preparing for the future”—though he acknowledges that she likely won’t be in the financial services industry in the future. (“I think that’s pretty clear,” Quarles commented.) Orenberg added that there’s a “job waiting for her at a salon” when she’s done serving time, and he pointed to a group of people present in the courtroom who “support their loved one.” Orenberg assured Quarles that Harris won’t be a repeat offender—to which Quarles said, “That was a prediction you would have made more confidently two or three years ago. It’s hard to predict future lawfulness.”
“It is obvious that my client is a resourceful person” who has “pluck and resolve . . . to better herself,” Orenberg declared, saying she is “accountable for a very large sum of money” and she can “satisfy those requirements” by “returning to the workforce.”
Harris rose to speak on her own behalf, and Quarles asked her, “What went wrong?” He received his answer in a bench conference with Harris rather than publicly. As they spoke in confidence, Harris started to cry and Quarles gave her a box of Kleenex. Then Harris resumed her remarks in open court, saying, “Morally I’m a good person that just made a mistake” that “hurt my family, my friends, other people.” She contended she’s done “200 good things” for every bad thing “the government says I’ve done,” and said she’s a “god-fearing” person whose short period of criminality “already cost me two years of my life” and “my career.”
Harris told Quarles that, while incarcerated, she has “learned how to stay clear of trouble” and points out that “I’m the only person in my case with no criminal history”—though Quarles matter-of-factly added that, while not convicted of anything, she was charged twice in the past, once for obstructing and hindering and once for passing a bad check, so “it’s not entirely accurate” to say her record is clear. Weeping, Harris asked Quarles to “show mercy” and “forgive me” by allowing her to rejoin her family and friends for the upcoming holidays, and promised that “I will be the one that you will be able to say, ‘I made the right call’” by going light on her.
“Ms. Harris, please stand,” Quarles said, after she finished making her statement. He called her a “rather exceptional 34-year-old person” whose “admitted conduct” included “participation in a sophisticated scheme to defraud financial institutions” involving the use of more than 1,000 stolen cards and efforts to smuggle contraband into Maryland prisons. While Harris has “explained some of the dynamics of that” conduct, Quarles continued, and asserted that it “is a departure” from her law-abiding past that is “perhaps not fully reflective of her character,” Quarles ordered her to spend a total of four years in prison—with credit for time served since April 2009—and to pay restitution of $521,312.67. “Good luck, ma’am,” Quarles concluded.