The sentencing of Stephanie Bitis, a former radio manager from Sag Harbor who pleaded guilty last fall to fraudulently using a company credit card for personal expenses, was adjourned on Thursday, April 29, to give federal prosecutors and the defense time to nail down just how much money she bilked her former employer out of.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Anthony Bagnuola said the figure is at least $285,000 while Ms. Bitis’s defense attorney, Thomas Kenniff, said the actual amount is $188,000. They both made their arguments before U.S. District Judge Gary R. Brown during a video conference that ended with the judge asking the parties to return Monday, June 7, with a number they can agree on.
The number will affect not only how much restitution Ms. Bitis is required to pay but also her sentence under federal guidelines. If the amount is above $250,000, Ms. Bitis faces 24 to 30 months in prison, but if it is below that threshold, the guidelines call for only 18 to 24 months, according to the U.S. attorney’s office.
The victim is Long Island Radio Broadcasting, the operator of WEHM, WBAZ and WBEA in Water Mill, where Ms. Bitis was the general manager from September 2015 until she was fired in November 2017. It also came out in court that she was accused of similar behavior by her previous employer, CBS Radio’s WFAN. According to a letter from Mr. Bagnuola to the U.S. Probation Office for the Eastern District of New York, Ms. Bitis misappropriated $88,158 while working for WFAN and agreed to pay it back in exchange for WFAN’s promise to release her from liability for the theft. She is currently the vice president of sales for Dan’s Papers in Southampton, published by Schneps Media, which sent one of the positive character references that the judge said he had received on Ms. Bitis’s behalf.
Long Island Radio Broadcasting alleged in an affidavit of loss that Ms. Bitis embezzled $302,585. Mr. Bagnuola said the government concedes that $17,000 of that amount is in dispute after Ms. Bitis offered some explanation for the charges, which brought the number down to $285,000.
Mr. Kenniff said Ms. Bitis agrees she owes restitution and is not trying to deny or diminish her responsibility, and he noted that he and Mr. Bagnuola have been working on these numbers for nearly two years. But his client proffered explanations that showed a number of transactions were reasonable business expenses and she made payments at the time to the company American Express card, totaling $12,329, to keep the fraud going, reducing the victim’s loss to $188,000, he said. He asked the court to give a sentence that reflects a loss amount of between $150,000 and $250,000, which he pointed out was the range agreed upon in an earlier plea agreement negotiated with the prosecution when both sides thought the restitution amount would be approximately $200,000.
Contributing to the gap between the defense’s figure of $188,000 and the prosecution’s $285,000 is $58,000 in cash withdrawals from corporate bank accounts that the victim states were not for legitimate business purposes. Mr. Kenniff said Ms. Bitis, as general manager, made withdrawals to obtain certified checks to address certain urgent payments, such as to keep the lights on, and to pay contractors in cash for office renovations.
Judge Brown said one significant factor he has to consider is the harm to the victim, which he said is ongoing due to the costs the victim has incurred.
Mr. Bagnuola said that — in addition to the money lost — the victim has documented nearly $200,000 in legal and investigative costs, and the total restitution that Ms. Bitis is responsible for could be close to half a million dollars.
The judge said if a substantial payment was made toward restitution before sentencing, he could factor that into his decision. He set a conference date for Monday, June 7, at 10:30 a.m. for the parties to give an update on the status of their negotiations. If they do not have an agreement on the victim’s loss by then, a hearing will be scheduled for the accounting to be hashed out in court.