Lauren DiMassa, the wife of former state Democratic lawmaker Michael DiMassa, was sentenced Thursday to six months in prison and another six months of home detention for helping her husband to steal more than $147,000 from the city of West Haven.
U.S. District Judge Omar Williams handed down the half-year prison sentence in the fraud case despite the fact that DiMassa is 23 weeks pregnant with her fourth child.
After announcing the sentence, Williams explained to DiMassa that her prison sentence would begin May 23, 2023, which means she will give birth behind bars.
After the judge delivered that news, DiMassa openly wept.
Francis O’Reilly, DiMassa’s defense attorney, had asked the federal judge to consider his client’s responsibilities as a mother and to deliver a more lenient sentence that would allow her to avoid giving birth while in prison.
“The only real support these children are going to have is Mrs. DiMassa,” O’Reilly said. “These children need their mother.”
“In this case, detention would do more harm than good,” O’Reilly added.
Williams, who was appointed to the federal bench in November 2021, said he was aware of the difficulties that a six-month prison sentence would present for DiMassa and her children. But he pushed back against the argument that she should avoid time in prison simply because of her parental duties and her current pregnancy.
The federal judge then noted the seriousness of DiMassa’s crime, to which she pleaded guilty.
Federal prosecutors charged her with fraud and conspiracy for helping Michael DiMassa, who was then her boyfriend, by creating phony invoices that were passed off in West Haven city hall.
She was also accused of cashing more than a dozen checks, which were paid using federal pandemic relief funds and a “youth violence prevention” grant that was awarded to the city.
That theft was part of an even broader embezzlement scheme, which was facilitated by Michael DiMassa, who previously served as an assistant to the West Haven city council. All together, more than $1.2 million was eventually stolen from the city’s understaffed finance department.
Williams said it “bordered on the offensive” that DiMassa would plead for mercy based on the needs of her family after she admitted to stealing money that was meant to help other children in West Haven.
“Imagine the good that could have come from those funds,” Williams said.
Williams also pointed out that her current pregnancy began after she pleaded guilty to the federal conspiracy charge last July.
In response, O’Reilly argued that the pregnancy was not intentional and was not meant to manipulate the judge. He said the court system can sometimes make judges and attorneys “a little cynical.”
Williams said he was not passing judgment on the circumstances of the pregnancy, but he said he had to take into consideration the precedent it would set if he lessened the sentence because DiMassa was having another child.
“Should a court always discount a sentence simply because a defendant comes before them pregnant?” he asked.
Williams explained that granting that request would send a “perverse message” to future defendants who are facing serious criminal charges in federal court.
Medical research shows that compared with the general population, incarcerated women are at higher risk for having premature delivery and low birth-weight infants. Still, it is estimated that thousands of women give birth while incarcerated every year.
The federal prosecutors in the case, who charged four different defendants as part of the public corruption probe, told the judge that they considered DiMassa the “least culpable” person in the entire scheme.
And they argued that her husband, who will also be sentenced next month, was “the engine” that drove the fraud.
Even so, Williams emphasized that DiMassa spent more than a year helping to steal taxpayer money, which is why he also ordered her to pay back more than $147,000 in restitution to the city.
“It took you less than a year to take this money,” Williams said. “I’m giving you five years to pay it back.”
After Williams handed down his sentence, DiMassa’s attorney asked the judge to delay the start of her incarceration until after she gives birth, explaining that doctors consider her pregnancy high risk.
Williams said he would consider that motion at a later date.