Marilyn L. Harrell, a former real estate agent dubbed "Robin HUD" for claiming the millions of dollars she stole from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development had been given to the poor, pleaded guilty Monday in U.S. District Court to embezzlement and tax charges stemming from the thefts.
"I'm very pleased," she said after the hearing. "I have known I was guilty all along. I have no fear. I got caught a long time ago, but I know I helped a lot of people come out of poverty situations."
After quibbling for a moment about the $6 million amount charged in her indictment, Ms. Harrell said, "Yes, sir" when U.S. District Senior Judge Herbert F. Murray asked her if she was guilty of the crimes charged.
She said later she was not sure how much HUD money she took.
First Assistant U.S. Attorney Gary P. Jordan said the government would recommend a 46-month prison term when Ms. Harrell is sentenced April 20 and will dismiss other charges of embezzlement and making false statements. Her attorney, Anthony M. Gallagher, an assistant public defender, said he would argue for a two-year term.
Jordan and Breckinridge L. Willcox, the U.S. attorney for Maryland, said they expected little restitution because most of the HUD money had been spent. Jordan said HUD recovered about $124,000 from Ms. Harrell's escrow account.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jamie M. Bennett said in a statement of facts in court that Ms. Harrell began to work in early 1985 as a private settlement agent on defaulted mortgages the federal agency insured in Prince George's and Montgomery counties in Maryland.
As defaulted properties were sold at auction, she collected the money and was supposed to send HUD the proceeds, less expenses and fees from her realty firm, Processing Title & Escrow.
HUD auditors calculate that from November 1985 to December 1988, Ms. Harrell failed to send HUD $6,008,896, the proceeds from sales of at least 99 properties. The Internal Revenue Service figures that she failed to report $434,666 in personal and corporate income from her HUD thefts for the 1986, 1987 and 1988 tax years.
Willcox said that Ms. Harrell's acts represented "the largest single theft of HUD money ever. It went on for a very long time, and she did a lot of things to cover it up."
Gallagher disputed the $6 million figure and hotly denied Ms. Harrell had bought a car for a former employee who questioned her activities. "She never discussed her embezzlement with any employees, in order to protect them," he said.
Ms. Harrell publicly admitted months ago that she took the HUD money but claimed she used it for philanthropic purposes to finance such things as homes for the poor and other charitable endeavors, mostly through an organization she founded called Friends of the Father.
Prosecutors say she spent most of the government money on herself, her family and her friends. As part of the plea agreement, prosecutors and Ms. Harrell will determine the exact amount of money she stole before sentencing.
Ms. Harrell said she has documents to prove she took only $4.75 million and said that less than 6 percent of the money benefited her family.
Prosecutors earlier had said she had taken at least $5.6 million but revised the figure Monday to $6.6 million after identifying six more properties for which, they claim, she did not remit settlement proceeds.