Credit union thief begs for mercy, gets none

Robert Snell
The Detroit News

Detroit — A former credit union executive who embezzled $18.6 million begged a judge for mercy Thursday but still received an 11-year federal prison sentence.

Michael LaJoice received the lengthy term because of the duration of his embezzlement scheme, and the amount of money stolen from Clarkston Brandon Community Credit Union constituted one of the largest fraud cases in recent Metro Detroit history, U.S. District Judge Gershwin Drain said.

“This offense represents pure greed,” the judge told a shackled LaJoice, 38, of Tyrone Township. “I don’t see how I can be lenient with you.”

The sentencing helped cap a criminal ordeal that clashed with LaJoice’s public image of a charitable civic leader who tried to improve the fortunes of Fenton, a small town near Flint. There, LaJoice opened a Latin dance studio and bought a boarded-up laundromat, four houses, a commercial building and planned a six-story mixed use project — largely with money stolen from the credit union, investigators said.

Prosecutors, who had requested the 11-year prison term, portrayed LaJoice as a greedy, calculating thief.

“He didn’t have to do this. He had a good job, a steady job,” Assistant U.S. Attorney John Neal told the judge. “The fact that he threw that all away in pursuit of a lavish lifestyle reflects on his character in a very negative way.”

LaJoice, who has lost a dramatic amount of weight and grown a beard while incarcerated, choked up while addressing the judge and asking for leniency.

“Um, I’m not proud of what I’ve done. I cannot change what I’ve done, unfortunately,” said LaJoice, who was restrained by leg chains and handcuffs and dressed in an orange jail uniform.

“I ask for mercy today,” the father of three said, before stopping for several seconds, “so I can return home to my family.”

LaJoice also was ordered to pay $18.6 million restitution.

LaJoice’s lawyer sought a more lenient sentence — five years along with full restitution.

LaJoice’s theft was uncovered in January 2016 after state regulators questioned him about discrepancies in the credit union’s financial records. He was the credit union’s chief financial officer.

LaJoice surrendered a day later to Oakland County sheriff’s deputies and admitted stealing the money over a 12-year period.

LaJoice altered the credit union’s general ledger to conceal the embezzlement, the government said.

The credit union became insolvent after LaJoice spent the cash on a lavish lifestyle that included a multimillion dollar home, expensive vehicles and private jet flights.

LaJoice pleaded guilty to bank fraud in November. Separately, he is scheduled to plead guilty to similar charges Monday in Oakland County Circuit Court.

LaJoice deserves a more lenient sentence because he “has proactively tried to right his wrongs,” lawyer Michael Manley wrote in a sentencing memo.

LaJoice has cooperated with local state and federal authorities and shed the trappings of wealth, including his home, a private jet lease, jewelry, art, furnishings and Detroit Pistons and Tigers tickets, his lawyer said.

“He has handled this matter since his arrest with integrity and humility, and in an effort to correct the wrongs he knows he committed,” Manley wrote. “This court should not only hear the words of regret and remorse from LaJoice’s mouth, but also watch his feet: he has tried to stabilize his crime’s effects on a financial institution, his community, and his family.”

The former executive’s crime was not a momentary lack of judgment, the prosecutor said.

“Indeed, it persisted for years, and was the product of premeditation, calculation, and an utter indifference to the consequences of the crime to others,” Neal wrote.

On Thursday, LaJoice said he was relieved.

“A huge amount of stress is off my shoulders,” LaJoice told the judge. “I don’t have to live a lie anymore. I used to think money could buy happiness.”

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