While the nation observed Sunday’s 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, one of its elite fighters was preparing to be sentenced in Sacramento federal court for theft of government funds.
Thomas Venable, then a captain in the California Air National Guard, was credited in a performance report by a senior officer for implementing “a dynamic new program while deployed to Iraq to combine critical intelligence information with all Force Protection resources, resulting in over 45 insurgents arrested.”
In a recent letter to the judge who sentenced Venable on Tuesday to a year and a day in prison for his fraud, Richard McCalla, a retired special forces sergeant major, said he served with Venable in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
“He is unwavering in his patriotism and unequaled in courage under fire,” McCalla wrote.
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But from April 2008 to April 2010, Venable unlawfully “double-dipped,” collecting $195,528 in wages, benefits and expense reimbursements to which he was not entitled from two – and sometimes three – government units for the same pay period. He pleaded guilty on Nov. 10.
Playing his client’s storied heroics as a trump card, defense attorney Mark Reichel made a strong argument for a home-confinement sentence.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Andre Espinosa countered that Venable is at heart a dishonest man, and his criminal activity obliterates his military record and demands a year in prison.
“He affirmatively lied at least 19 times” to subordinates and superiors in connection with the theft, Espinosa argued at Tuesday’s sentencing.
“He didn’t do this accidentally. He used his status in the military to further his crimes and undermine his service.”
U.S. District Judge John A. Mendez was not to be swayed from some time behind bars for Venable.
“It became a way of life for you over almost a two-year period,” the judge told Venable, and mused about whether Venable would have halted the scam had he not been interviewed by investigators in June 2010.
“The problem is, you are held to a higher standard,” Mendez said. “You betrayed the military, which provided the means to commit this crime.”
Mendez did effectively downgrade Espinosa’s recommendation of a year to a year and a day. By adding the extra day, the judge made Venable eligible for 54 days off his term for good behavior. That would mean a release in roughly 10 months. Federal law prohibits early release for good behavior for a prisoner who serves a year or less.
He was ordered to surrender Dec. 2 to begin serving his term, and was ordered to repay the California Military Department $195,528. By selling property, he has already been able to repay $175,000.
Venable, 47, now works as an Uber driver and splits rent on a Sacramento apartment with a friend.
In his own letter to the judge, he wrote, “This is arguably the hardest letter I have ever had to write. Even harder than the final death letters I had written to my parents, wife and children in the event I didn’t return from combat missions. … In those I knew what I wanted to say and I was proud to say it. I was able to dispose of those without having to utilize them, unlike this one.”
It was an accident the first time he was double compensated, Venable said.
“But after that, I realized it seemed easy and I talked myself into continuing because I falsely made myself believe no one was getting hurt. I told myself I was completing the mission still. I forgot a rule I was taught and lived by as a young soldier: ‘There is no right way to do a wrong thing.’ ”
In 2008, Venable’s active duty ended and he came home to the Sacramento area. “In total, he spent over 1,000 days in treacherous and dangerous assignments,” Reichel wrote in a sentencing memorandum. “Many of his days are classified. He has been in direct combat or support for classified American missions in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, Azerbaijan, Mali, Mauritania, Libya, Egypt, Ethiopia, Somalia, the Philippines.”
“We have to look at what he’s done for his country, what he’s sacrificed,” Reichel told Mendez in an emotional argument at Tuesday’s lengthy hearing.
Charlie J. Spruill III, a retired Air Force master sergeant, said in a letter that Venable’s exploits “in the special operations world are known across the United States and around the world.”
But it all ended in ruins Tuesday. He has lost his commission, his pension, his health benefits, the opportunity to work as a security consultant in civilian life, his very identity. He will receive an “other than honorable” discharge.
“He disgraced and dishonored his service,” Espinosa declared.
Denny Walsh: 916-321-1189