An 83-year-old former New Haven state lawmaker stared down “basically a death sentence” in federal court, earning a one-week reprieve from a judge who said he couldn’t reconcile the contrite man in the courtroom with the man convicted in April of mortgage fraud conspiracy.
The man—in both instances—was Morris Olmer, a former lawyer, alderman, and state representative.
He appeared for a sentencing hearing in federal Judge Alvin Thompson’s wood-paneled second-floor courtroom in Hartford Wednesday to hear his fate, and plead for mercy.
Judge Thompson decided to forestall issuing a sentence until next week, after he asks Olmer questions about just how sorry he is for the crimes of which he has been convicted.
Olmer was convicted in April of one count of conspiracy, eight counts of wire fraud, and four counts of making false statements. He was one of 15 people accused of taking part in a mortgage fraud conspiracy that defrauded government and private lenders of millions of dollars and left a trail of blighted homes in New Haven.
Of the accused, most pleaded guilty. Five people, including Olmer, took their chances with a jury. Olmer and three others were found guilty in April. The fifth accused, Rabbi David Avigdor, walked free when the jury couldn’t reach a verdict on his charges. The government has decided to re-try the case against him; that trial is set to begin Feb. 13.
Olmer and Avigdor, former Whalley Avenue office-mates, were accused of helping conspirators to falsify government mortgage applications and funneling ill-gotten gains to a shell company for disbursement to participants in the scheme.
Wendy Werner, another conspirator, was sentenced to four years in prison Wednesday morning. On Wednesday afternoon at 3:30 p.m., Olmer was awaiting what may be a similar sentence.
Wearing a navy blazer over khakis, a pink shirt and a checkered tie, with the bulge of an electronic monitor visible through the sock on his left ankle, Olmer sat with his lawyer at the defense table in the high-ceilinged courtroom. He worked on a photocopied crossword puzzle and told attorney Audrey Felsen his top concern is staying in touch with his son and daughter while in prison.
At 4:20 p.m., Judge Thompson appeared. He overruled a total of four objections from Felsen and government attorneys seeking to modify a pre-sentencing memo.
Thompson announced that sentencing guidelines indicate he could give Olmer between 70 and 87 months in prison followed by a period of supervised release, levy a fine of $12,500 to $125,000, and impose a restitution payment of an amount to be determined.
Attorney Felsen rose to speak on Olmer’s behalf. Her client has lived for 83 years and stayed on the right side of the law for the “vast majority” of that time, Felsen said.
“I’ve Got Ties Older Than You Guys”
“I am standing here as a deeply disgraced and humiliated individual,” said Olmer when it was his turn to speak. “I cannot express how deeply unhappy I am about my conduct. I am not an evil person.”
He went on to tell the story of his life, one of public service, as he described it:
Olmer was born to Polish immigrants who instilled in him good values. As a young attorney, he was shocked to find the bar association set minimum fees lawyers had to charge for certain legal work. He organized attorneys to change that, so that smaller firms could compete with larger more established practices, he said.
“You don’t remember this,” Olmer said to the attorneys in the courtroom. “I’ve got ties older than you guys.”
Later in his career he helped change a rule so that real estate transaction work would become available to a wider group of lawyers in New Haven, he said.
Olmer was elected as an alderman. “We demolished ghetto areas and put up low-cost housing,” he said.
He was chairman of a committee that helped to get water fluoridated despite conspiracy theories popular at the time.
“I was the mayor’s [Dick Lee’s] point man when busing came in,” Olmer said. “We had bomb threats.”
He went on to the state legislature, then into private legal practice. From 1953 to 2006, he had just a single reprimand as a lawyer, when he forgot to file a case within two years’ time, he said.
“In 2006, I made a terrible decision,” Olmer said. To help out a friend, he falsified a HUD [federal Department of Housing and Urban Development] form. He was found out and surrendered his law license.
“I still needed to make a living,” Olmer said. He rented out part of his office and worked as a notary on real estate closings. It was in that capacity that he fell into the conspiracy.
“I accept responsibility for being stupid and doing wrong,” Olmer said.
He closed with a plea for mercy due to his failing health: “The guidelines are basically a death sentence for me.”
He rattled off a list of ailments: high blood pressure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, partially blocked arteries, constant shoulder pain. He said he’s 17 years past triple bypass surgery, three years past prostate cancer, five years past thyroid cancer. He has just discovered “possible cancer” on his face, he said.
With that, Olmer concluded. His remarks did not include the phrase “I’m sorry.”
“Many More Tentacles”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Liam Brennan stood to offer a rebuttal. A sentence of 70 to 80 months is “completely appropriate,” he said.
Olmer was “pretty deep” into the conspiracy, Brennan said. “Mr. Olmer’s involvement had many more tentacles” than other conspirators, Brennan said.
Brennan noted that Olmer lost his law license in 2006 for the very activity for which he later found himself in federal court.
“Mr. Olmer has difficulty abiding by the law,” Brennan said.
Even after being disbarred, Olmer was still passing himself off as a lawyer, Brennan said. As a lawyer, and as a legislator, Olmer of all people should have known to abide by the law, he said.
At 5:30 p.m., Thompson called for a sidebar conference with attorneys on both sides, kicking off what would be nearly an hour of whispered, off-the-record conversations. After the judge conferred with the lawyers, Felsen spoke privately with Olmer, then with prosecuting attorneys. Then they all headed back to the sidebar, where the cycle began again.
“They’re going to hang me,” Olmer muttered as he walked out into the hallway to confer with Felsen a second time. He returned to his crossword puzzle as Felsen stepped into another sidebar with the judge.
Finally, Olmer himself was called up to the sidebar, where the judge spoke quietly, but on the record, about what was happening.
Thompson said he had “gotten a picture” of Olmer during the trial through tape recordings, testimony, and evidence. “It was not flattering,” Thompson said. He mentioned specifically a wiretapped conversation in which Olmer said “I’m no moralist.”
“I’m having trouble reconciling the Mr. Olmer you’re telling me I’ve seen today and the picture I have,” Thompson said. “So I’m not comfortable there.”
Thompson said he’d like to ask Olmer more questions, to reconcile the two versions of the man he’s seen. “I still may not be persuaded.”
Felsen asked for a court date next week to allow time to prepare her client. Thompson agreed.
“Thank you very much for your consideration,” Olmer said to the judge.
Olmer declined to speak after the hearing adjourned, at the advice of his attorney, who also declined comment.
Two other conspirators are due to be sentenced Thursday—assuming the judge can reconcile his pictures of them.
Previous coverage of this case:
• Feds Will Retry Avigdor
• 4 Convicted In Fraud Scam; Mistrial For Rabbi
• Jury Can’t Agree In Scam Trial
• Avigdor’s Final Plea: Follow The Money
• Claire: The Rabbi Is Kosher
• Wednesday The Rabbi Took The Stand
• Straw Buyer Lured Into A Wild Ride
• After Big Fish Plead, Smaller Fry Point Fingers
• Slum-Photo Doctor Makes A Call
• What Happened At Goodfellas Didn’t Stay At Goodfellas
• Fraud Trial Opens With Oz-Like Yarn
• “Partying” MySpacer Lined Up Scam Homebuyers
• “Straw Buyer” Pleads Guilty
• Neighbors, Taxpayers Left With The Tab
• FBI Arrests Police Commissioner, Slumlord, Rabbi
• One Last Gambit Falls Short
• Was He In “Custody”?
• Is Slum Landlord Helping The FBI?
• Feds Snag Poverty Landlord
• Police Commissioner Pleads