URBANA, Ill. (WCIA) — A Vermilion County man has been sentenced to two years in federal prison after using his position as an accountant to operate a check-kiting scheme that shorted a family business more than $1.3 million.
Christopher Leigh, 53, was sentenced in federal court in Urbana on Tuesday after pleading guilty earlier this year.
Judge Sara Darrow told the former 14-year former Vermilion County board member and farmer that it was likely a matter of pride — and not necessarily greed — that prompted him to defraud multiple banks in order to protect his position as the accountant for a handful of small businesses.
The charge against Leigh stemmed from his work with the Ravens family, who operated multiple companies in the area, including Ravens Trucking, Rainbow Transportation and Birky Farms.
According to court documents, Leigh — who’d been the family’s company accountant for around 10 years — noticed in 2010 that two of the companies weren’t making enough money to keep all three afloat: Rainbow Trucking and Birky Farms were supposed to make monthly payments to Ravens for fuel and services rendered.
But that year, the two companies were no longer able to stay current on payment to Ravens.
To keep up appearances, Leigh began writing checks for all three bank accounts to “artificially and fraudulently inflate” the balances.
“It was Leigh’s initial hope that income would pick up and the false amounts could be reconciled, but when that did not occur, he continued the scheme until June 2013,” court documents say.
On Tuesday, prosecutors said Leigh’s “check-kiting” scheme was revealed when the banks noticed a pattern of large deposits that weren’t covered.
Eventually, the family got calls from the banks, asking what was going on.
Leigh met with the family not long after and “admitted his misconduct.”
“The investigation into the case was complex and involved the analysis of multiple banks accounts at (Community Bank of Hoopeston, Heartland Bank in Kentland, Indiana and Iroquois Federal Savings and Loan Association in Watseka),” court documents say. “Part of the complexity was the length of the activity associated with the scheme, but there was a flow of funds back and forth between the accounts that also had to be reconciled with legitimate deposits from the ongoing trucking operations.”
Leigh cooperated with the investigation and “assisted in the financial analysis so the actual loss amount could be shared with the Ravens family.”
The Ravens ended up having to borrow money via new bank loans to cover the amount lost — more than $1.349 million.
On Tuesday, 81-year-old Wes Ravens stood before the court to describe the financial hardships the family endured following the loss.
“Every week I had to meet payroll,” he said. “We’d lay there at night and wonder if we were going to meet payroll.”
One of the companies was sold and plans to expand the business were “put on hold,” he said.
To the day, Ravens said, he wonders “why (Leigh) did it.”
“I understand it doesn’t make sense to the Ravens,” Leigh said in a statement before his sentencing. “We ran out of money and I was trying to save the companies. I wasn’t benefitting myself.”
But that’s exactly what Leigh was doing, judge Sara Darrow said, by using the scheme to hide the company’s financial straits and keep his more-than-$80,000 a year salary.
“In many ways, I think it’s pride,” Darrow said. “I think you take pride in being respected.”
Of Leigh’s check-kiting scheme, Darrow said, “This was not negligence — this was criminal behavior with lasting consequences.”
Leigh’s attorney, Urbana-based Steve Beckett, had argued that Leigh’s obligation to pay back the Ravens merited reducing the time he would spend in prison, placing him on house arrest or a sentence with “intermittent weekend incarceration” so that he could work for the money he owes, in addition to caring for aging family members and running the family farm.
Darrow said she would take into account Leigh’s lack of criminal history and “upstanding life,” but said “the harm (to the Ravens) is real and I have to take that into account.”
“You were in that position because people trusted you,” Darrow said. “People in small towns don’t do things like this.”
Darrow sentenced Leigh to 24 months in federal prison in Terre Haute — three months lower than what prosecutors argued should be the minimum sentencing.
As part of his sentencing, Leigh is required to send 50 percent of his disposable income to the Ravens until the $1.34 million is paid in full.
The Ravens family declined requests for an interview.
In speaking to the court before Leigh’s sentence was handed down, Wes Ravens said the ordeal “bent us, but it didn’t break us.”