Trials & Litigation

Prosecutor, federal judge spar over 6-year mortgage fraud sentence

A prosecutor seeking 24 years for a mortgage fraud defendant complained Tuesday that the 6½-year term handed down by a federal judge to Vasilia Berger represented the biggest variance he’d ever heard of since sentencing guidelines took effect in 1987.

But the judge said the prosecutor was the one who had cut an amazing break to a co-defendant in the Pittsburgh case, Berger’s estranged husband, Jay, who cooperated with the feds and got only 15 months as a result of a plea bargain, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

The couple owned a mortgage company, Steel City Mortgage Services Inc. The feds said guidelines called for a six- to eight-year prison term for Jay Berger. They contended that Vasilia Berger, who didn’t cooperate, should get a sentence three or four times greater for her wire fraud conspiracy and money laundering conviction because of new information that came to light about victims’ losses since Jay Berger entered into a plea, the newspaper explains.

U.S. District Judge Joy Flowers Conti disputed this, saying that the government had informally changed the sentencing guidelines for Jay Berger because of his cooperation in the case. She called it “very troubling” that the feds should seek such dramatically different prison terms for a husband and wife who committed essentially the same crime.

Jay Berger entered into a plea in 2008 but was not sentenced until September of last year.

As assistant U.S. Attorney Brendan Conway complained to Conti that the light sentence for Vasilia Berger would discourage other defendants from entering into plea bargains, the judge told him: “You can take this up on appeal, Mr. Conway,” the Post-Gazette recounts.

Conti gave Vasilia Berger until April 30, 2014 to report to prison, so that she can make arrangements to find a guardian to care for her 6-year-old daughter. Although Jay Berger will be out of prison before then, he has advanced cancer.

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