The former chief of staff to then-Gov. Ed Rendell was sentenced Thursday to a year of probation after pleading guilty last year to felony wire fraud for taking thousands of dollars from a fake company set up by the FBI in a public corruption investigation.
U.S. District Judge John Jones told John H. Estey that he has beaten himself up enough over the crime and that putting him behind bars wouldn't accomplish anything.
"This is both a sentencing and a pep talk," Jones told Estey. "It's time to turn the page."
Prosecutors say Estey, 54, accepted $20,000 in what he thought were campaign donations he would pass along to state lawmakers to hide the company's involvement. He made just $7,000 in donations and converted the remaining $13,000 for his own use.
Estey was ordered to pay $5,100 in fines and fees and perform 100 hours of community service. He can't work as a registered lobbyist while on probation.
The judge made no mention of the $20,000 in FBI money. In a sentencing memo his lawyers filed last month, they said Estey had tried to pay all $20,000 to the court clerk, but the probation office said he could not until after sentencing. He and his lawyers declined to discuss it after the hearing, but the U.S. attorney's office said the plea agreement requires $13,000 in restitution.
Estey told Jones he feels he lost his way before committing the crime.
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"I slipped down into a black hole of moral relativism," Estey said.
Estey was a top aide to Rendell when Rendell was mayor of Philadelphia. He also served as chief of staff and senior adviser to the Democratic governor from 2003 until 2008.
In advance of the sentencing, Estey submitted dozens of letters supporting him from civic and political leaders, lawyers, people who served with him in state government and members of his immediate family. Jones said it was unlike anything he had seen as a judge, calling the letters "poignant, direct, impactful."
"I am convinced this is utterly aberrational," Jones said, at one point reassuring the defendant: "This can't be a pleasant thing for you."
Rendell's letter, dated March 1, said Estey was "as honest and moral a person as anybody I've ever had the pleasure to work with."
Estey owned a Philadelphia-based lobbying firm that, from fall 2009 to mid-2011, represented the FBI's "Undercover Corp.," or UCC, and met with the agents who purported to be company executives.
Prosecutors said Estey told them campaign money would help them get legislation passed and that the targeted lawmakers would know the donations from him were really from UCC. State law bans corporate political donations.
Estey was fired as executive vice president of the Hershey Trust Co. after news of his plea deal, and he relinquished his Pennsylvania law license in January.
His lawyers' heavily redacted sentencing memo said Estey has been working as an executive with a startup technology company based in Harrisonsburg, Virginia, and has no plans to ever work again as a lobbyist.