The Robin Hood banker helps delinquent loan holders

Robin HoodNot all bankers are villains.

Though you probably find that pretty hard to believe these days, what with all the loan foreclosures and obscure and punishing fees banks are charging even their best customers.

But the next time you get turned down for a loan and think that the banks are out to get you, you might want to think about Jeffrey Gonsiewski, a Chicago-area bank vice president. Gonsiewski's living proof that at least some of the denizens of Wall Street aren't happy with how the people living on Main Street have been treated.

Last week, The Chicago Tribune broke the story that Gonsiewski, vice president of his bank's loan department, faked the records of dozens of delinquent loan customers, crunching the numbers so it would look like the loans were being paid on time. He played "Robin Hood," as the media has dubbed him, for nearly four and a half years, from September 2004 until February 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Justice..

Unfortunately, his luck ran out, and Gonsiewski's "good deeds" were uncovered. But as Gonsiewski told the court, "I thought I was helping the customer stay afloat, so to speak, as the times got bad, and that economically, it would improve and everything would go back to a normal situation. And those loans would be paid off, times would get better, other property would sell, the bank would not take a loss."

But that didn't happen. While Gonsiewski may have made a lot of families happy, he cost the bank he worked for at least $5.5 million.

Gonsiewski, 56, pleaded guilty to bank fraud. His sentencing will be Dec. 3.

Crime and punishment

So is Gonsiewski likely to have the hammer come down on him? Or will the judge be lenient? While it's impossible to guess, I consulted with Tom Anelli, a prominent attorney who often appears on Tru TV (formerly, Court TV). He's also the founder of New York state's largest DWI defense firm, Anelli Xavier P.C.

Anelli predicts that the judge will likely honor the written plea agreement that Gonsiewski made with federal prosecutors. According to Anelli, "It appears likely he'll serve somewhere between four and six years in prison, along with paying about $2.5 million in restitution."

But another attorney I spoke with believes Gonsiewski could end up with a lesser punishment. Stuart P. Slotnick, a defense attorney who's been involved in some high-profile cases, including successfully defending retired Army Captain Jay Ferriola, who sued the U.S. Army in 2004 after they tried to deploy him to Iraq, says, "The sentencing guidelines are just guidelines, which means the judge can depart from them, and if you look at the circumstances, that could happen in this case. Judges do take all the facts in consideration, and obviously somebody's motivation in a crime is something the judge will consider."

Slotnick says that provided the prosecution doesn't come up with any evidence that his job performance was tied to the loans, and that Gonsiewski was truly trying to help strangers and not family members (and that appears to be the case, judging from this partial transcript of the court case), then "it may influence the judge and appeal to his or her humanity."

Advice for those thinking of playing Robin Hood

While it's easy to admire Gonsiewski -- I admit that I find myself hoping the judge will be lenient -- if you're thinking you'd like to play Robin Hood yourself, you'd better think long and hard about it first. It's not uncommon to hear about people who end up going to jail or being fined for seemingly good deeds. For instance, back in the 1990s, Slyvia Stayton, a 64-year-old grandmother who lived in Cincinnati, made local and national headlines because she kept feeding parking meters, trying to keep people from getting parking tickets. She wound up being arrested and charged with obstructing official police business and was handed a $500 fine and $200 in court costs. Fortunately for her, donations wound up paying for everything.

And as recently as last year, another banker was arrested for trying to help other people. Patricia Keezer, then 53, was sentenced to a year and a day in prison for embezzling $340,000 from her bank. While most people steal money for themselves, there's no evidence that Keezer kept any of the money. She gave impoverished people $2,000 at a time for everything from car repairs to mortgage payments and taxes. Keezer, who worked at a Citizens Bank in Detroit, also frequently reversed bounced-check charges and other fees.

But nice as these gestures were, the embezzled money -- especially the funds Keezer simply doled out to people -- wasn't hers to give. As Slotnick says, "If you rob a bank to pay hospital bills for a sick family member, you still have committed a crime and will still suffer the consequences." In other words, no matter what the reasoning, if it's a crime, you'll do some time.

And as Anelli says, "Robbing from the rich to give to the poor works in the movies to make heroes, but it's not so well received in real life. In cases like Gonsiewski's, extending someone's credit when they can't afford to re-pay a loan is not only illegal, it's irresponsible and arguably doesn't help either party.

"The problem is," Anelli adds, "if everyone, based on their own internal feelings of justice, was able to use their own discretion as to when laws should and shouldn't be followed, the world would be a much worse place."

And while I agree, I can't help but think that people like Gonsiewski, Slayton and Keezer have nevertheless made the world a better place.

Geoff Williams is a frequent contributor to WalletPop. He is also the co-author of the book Living Well with Bad Credit.
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