David R. Wendt, a former attorney and part-time city judge who stole from his clients to support his gambling and alcohol addictions, was sentenced Wednesday to two years in Niagara County Jail.
Wendt, 47, of Lockport, also must repay a total of $214,065 to his former clients, at least two of whom declared bankruptcy after losing their money to Wendt, and to the state Lawyers' Fund for Client Protection.
In imposing the sentence, State Supreme Court Justice Richard C. Kloch Sr. said Wendt had committed "the mortal sin" for a lawyer -- stealing from clients.
"Booze and gambling, judge. Gambling and booze," defense attorney Joel L. Daniels said as he explained what brought Wendt so low.
Daniels said Wendt hadn't taken a drink since March 30, 2000. But he said casino gambling around the country also did Wendt in.
"Thousands and thousands of dollars went through his pockets at the crap tables or the poker tables or betting on games of chance," Daniels said.
"Dave Wendt is not just a client, he's a friend, too," Daniels added. "I can't tell you how many lawyers have come up to me and asked, 'How's he going to do? Can you help him?'. . . He had a good law practice. He was doing well for himself. He was a judge, and now look at the price he's paid. He's broke. He doesn't have a dime. He doesn't even have a bank account."
With family members looking on, Wendt said, "I want the court to understand, I stand here today and take full responsibility for what happened. I'd like to apologize to the court and to the legal community. . . . I'd like to apologize to my clients. For what it's worth, I'd like to do that."
Wendt, a dairy farmer's son whom Daniels said used to rise at 4:30 a.m. to milk cows before going to school, vowed to work as hard as necessary to make restitution after he gets out of jail. He said he has four goals: to rejoin his three sons, 11, 9, and 7 years old; to stay sober; to not gamble; and to get a job.
Wendt, who pleaded guilty to second-degree grand larceny and first-degree scheming to defraud, could have been sent to state prison for up to 15 years.
But Kloch said, "I find a confinement to state prison would not to be in the interest of the public."
The two-year sentence was part of a plea bargain reached Oct. 24.
Kloch warned Wendt that if he doesn't pay in what the court considers a timely fashion, he could be sentenced to further jail time.
Kloch said he found it "amazing" that some former clients who had been victimized had urged him not to send Wendt to jail.
Wendt stole from his clients from September 1999 to August 2005, according to court papers, which listed 18 specific thefts.
In September 2005, Wendt resigned without explanation from a part-time City of Lockport judgeship he had held since 1996. Two weeks later, the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court, acting on the recommendation of the Eighth Judicial District's Attorney Grievance Committee, suspended his law license. Wendt officially resigned from the bar last September.