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Pa. medical firm ex-CEO faces sentencing for fraud

Joe Mandak, Associated Press

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- The former chief executive of a western Pennsylvania medical billing and staffing firm faces sentencing Tuesday for securities fraud and tax evasion for a multimillion-dollar penny stock fraud.

Federal prosecutors and defense attorneys disagree greatly about how much time 38-year-old Richard McDonald, of Leechburg, deserves in prison for the scheme that prosecutors contend cost hundreds of World Health Alternatives investors as much as $200 million when the stocks bottomed out following McDonald's resignation in August 2005.

The federal judge must consider guidelines that use a series of numerical scores meant to "weigh" the seriousness of his crimes. Prosecutors have already agreed to let the judge sentence McDonald as though the losses were just $41 million, a number McDonald agreed to when he pleaded guilty to fraud and tax-related charges in April.

Still, prosecutors and McDonald's attorneys vehemently disagree about how much time he deserves in prison and what kind of person he really is, according to presentencing arguments.

Prosecutors contend McDonald was a headstrong wheeler-dealer who siphoned money from the company, manipulated records to hide $2.3 million in unpaid payroll taxes and fudged records overstating loans he made to the company as well as financial statements used to fool auditors and shareholders.

As such, Assistant U.S. Attorney Shawn Sweeney wants McDonald sentenced to at least 15½ years and perhaps as many as 19½ years in prison.

McDonald's attorneys, including former federal prosecutor Tina Miller, argue that the sentencing guidelines are unfair and that McDonald should spend no more than seven years in prison.

Prosecutors contend McDonald's sentencing score should be increased because of the amount of loss, the fact that he endangered the solvency of a publicly traded company and was an officer of the company and because the scheme had more than 10 victims.

But Miller argues those sentencing enhancements amount to piling on.

"Given the amount of loss, only an officer or director of a large company could have likely committed such a crime, the very amount of which, if publicly traded, is almost certain to have more than 10 stockholders," she said.

Miller argues that McDonald was a naive 29-year-old when he took over the company in 2003 and was surrounded by associates and hedge fund advisers who pushed him to make money by inflating the company's worth.

"Rather than exercising the good judgment that a more experienced person may have used, Richard McDonald succumbed to the stereotypical lure of the American dream and obsession of many in today's society — wealth, power, and recognition," Miller wrote.

Miller contends McDonald is now a God-fearing family man who operates a small business, and she has filed dozens of testimonials from family and friends to that effect.

She argues that McDonald made "many bad choices" that he didn't fully understand until he was hospitalized for a nervous breakdown "from the stress and pressure of running WHA, and from the overwhelming guilt he experience for his actions."

Sweeney disagreed in his presentence argument.

"On the contrary, the defendant was severely stressed on the day that he checked himself in at Western Psychiatric Hospital (August 15, 2005) because that is the same day that he became aware that his crimes were being discovered," Sweeney wrote.

Prior to that, McDonald was "dedicating all of his efforts to lying, cheating and stealing from his company and from everyone who invested in his company," Sweeney wrote.