Ex-Housing Chief Gets 18 Months On Corruption Charges

By PAUL SINGER, Associated Press Writer

CLEVELAND (AP) - A federal judge on Wednesday sentenced the city's former public housing director to 18 months in prison for taking more than $100,000 of agency money.

Prosecutors had asked for a sentence of up to four years, but U.S. District Court Judge Kathleen O'Malley said the sentence was appropriate in light of Claire Freeman's family responsibilities.

Freeman's lawyer, James Willis, noted that Freeman is caring for her two grandchildren in California as well other family members.

Freeman, 58, through tears, said she is disappointed in her behavior. "I am just devastated at this point of my life, that I find myself having done that," she said.

The judge also said that a reduced sentence was appropriate because her co-defendant was allowed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor.

O'Malley said despite appeals for leniency by dozens of Freeman's friends and supporters, she did not have the discretion to free Freeman without prison time.

Freeman may have avoided jail time if she had pleaded guilty to the charges rather than forcing the case to go to trial, O'Malley said.

"This defendant held the keys to her own jail cell," O'Malley said.

Freeman remains free on bond until ordered to report to prison.

A jury convicted Freeman on Feb. 13 on charges of mail fraud, theft of public money and false statements regarding a loan.

Willis said he will begin preparing the appeal of her conviction and sentence, but said she doesn't have the money to pay for an appeal. Willis said Freeman will ask the court to appoint a lawyer for her.

Federal prosecutors said Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority board members never authorized the use of agency money for mortgage payments on her town house in Alexandria, Va. Prosecutors also said Freeman used forged letters from the CMHA board to get a bank loan and to refinance her mortgage.

Freeman was charged with using agency money to pay off a $50,000 personal loan and make $62,000 in mortgage payments. In a civil trial in 1999, a Cuyahoga County jury ruled against Freeman on her breach of contract claims against CMHA, but found Freeman owed CMHA $462,200.

A former CMHA commissioner testified in court that she never signed letters authorizing the mortgage payments.

Freeman was one of the highest paid housing directors in the country when she was hired in May 1990. By 1997, her compensation totaled more than $400,000.

Ronnie Davis, CMHA's chief operating officer under Freeman and later a top public housing official in San Francisco, had been a co-defendant with Freeman but was allowed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor misappropriation charge for keeping a $5,500 overpayment in his paycheck.

O'Malley said that Freeman deserved a light sentence in part because of the "incredibly light sentence" that Davis was given.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Getz said afterward that the judge had a hard decision in setting the proper sentence. "I wouldn't second guess it."

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)