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Editorial: Trustee’s phantom court appearance insults victims

It’s more than unfortunate when crime victims are re-victimized by the very system that is supposed to give them justice. It’s a disgrace.

But that’s what happened last week with the surprise announcement that former Desert State Life Trust Management CEO Paul Donisthorpe agreed to a sweet under-the-radar plea deal that allowed him to avoid facing the victims he stole millions of dollars from.

Paul Donisthorpe

Paul Donisthorpe

Victims told the Journal they received no notice that Donisthorpe was even going to be formally charged or appear in court, let alone plead guilty, before his unannounced hearing last week. State financial regulators have identified about 40 victims – many of them with developmental disabilities – but Donisthorpe was allowed to plead guilty to a total of two counts of wire fraud and money laundering in a deal with federal prosecutors.

A former investment banker who was convicted of vehicular homicide in 1991, Donisthorpe faces up to 12 years in prison and was ordered to pay $4.8 million in restitution – although state officials report that his company’s bank account is virtually empty. It’s far from a one-of-a-kind story in New Mexico: steal from the most vulnerable to finance a lavish lifestyle.

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There has been much speculation about Donisthorpe’s mental and physical condition with various reports of a stroke, fall, attempted suicide or drug overdose. But a court document says that when he appeared in court last week for his 41-minute, in-and-out proceeding in which he was formally charged for the first time, he understood the terms of the agreement. He was questioned as to his age, education and physical and mental condition before the judge accepted his plea.

Unfortunately, his victims didn’t get to see or hear any of this – despite a federal statute that says crime victims have a right to “reasonable and timely notice” of any public court proceedings involving the crime.

Instead, federal law enforcement officials announced the plea deal later that day in something of a self-congratulatory news conference. As is often typical, they refused to answer any questions.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office defended the blackout and lack of notice by saying Department of Justice regulations that implement victims’ rights kick in when the defendant is formally charged. And that didn’t happen until Donisthorpe’s appearance that day – which wasn’t included on the federal court’s public online schedule of proceedings.

Victims were stunned.

“You were the first to tell us,” Armando Ramirez of Santa Teresa told a Journal reporter who contacted him after the press conference. Ramirez helps support his brother, Oscar Ramirez, who lost nearly $1 million in a trust account managed by Donisthorpe. Oscar has a brain injury and that money was supposed to take care of him for life.

Perhaps the Department of Justice explanation stands up under technical legal scrutiny, but it doesn’t pass the justice and morality test.

Who knows – victims might have objected to the plea deal. Now they will have to wait for his sentencing to lay eyes on the man who cut their financial lifelines, instead of watching as he stood before the court and pleaded guilty to limited charges.

The victims in the Donisthorpe case have had way too many nasty surprises sprung on them already. They didn’t need another one courtesy of the people who are supposed to be seeking justice on their behalf.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.


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