Both Wendy's finger scammer Anna Ayala and Philadelphia restaurateur Stein pleaded guilty to the charges against them. Guilty pleas are the tactic to which defense attorneys resort when the evidence against their client is overwhelming. The hope is that the inevitable sentence can be mitigated if the defendant is forthcoming about the guilt.
In that case, we can only speculate what sentences California Superior Court Judge Edward Davila would have given Ayala and her husband/co-conspirator Jamie Plascencia if the Wendy's case had gone to trial. The couple pleaded guilty to conspiracy to file a false insurance claim and attempted grand theft with damages exceeding $2.5 million.
Before handing down sentence, the judge said, "Greed and avarice overtook this couple. They lost their moral compass." Then he got out the hammer. Ayala, who claimed she had bitten into a severed finger she found in a bowl of Wendy's chili, will be cooling her heels in the California State Penitentiary for nine years. Plascencia, who obtained the finger from a co-worker, got a 12-year sentence.
There was more. The couple was ordered to pay $170,000 in restitution for wages lost by Wendy's workers. The judge further ordered the pair to pay $21.8 million to parent company Wendy's International and franchise holder JEM Management. Neither company expects to collect, but they will go after Ayala for it if she tries to sell her story to the media or otherwise profit from the case.
Did Ayala learn her lesson? The Associated Press reported that after the sentencing, "during a recorded jailhouse phone call, Ayala bragged about how other inmates were asking for her autograph, according to a transcript of the call." Think the glamour associated with her crime will have diminished by the time she hits the streets in 2015?
The 64-year-old Stein, a talented restaurateur, created a number of fine restaurants in Philadelphia during his career. The list includes Striped Bass, Bleu, Avenue B and Fishmarket, all of which he subsequently lost, plus the still-operating Rouge. Striped Bass was Esquire's pick as the nation's Best New Restaurant in 1994.
The personable Stein is the kind of guy for whom the governor of Pennsylvania would submit the following endorsement at a sentencing hearing:
"It is not an exaggeration to say that he (Stein) was in part responsible for creating the dynamic, vibrant environment that has made our downtown one of the fastest-growing in the nation," wrote Gov. Edward Rendell, mayor of Philadelphia during much of Stein's time on top.
The hearing came after Stein pleaded guilty to three felony counts of federal tax evasion. He was originally charged with skimming upwards of $500,000 from his restaurants.
In a statement at his hearing, Stein said he kept two sets of books at his restaurants. His routine was to take $200 or $300 per week from each location.
How'd the feds find out? While reporting an annual income of $104,000 to the Internal Revenue Service for 1999, 2000 and 2001, he was telling financial institutions that his income was closer to $500,00 per year. The upshot: Stein owes the IRS $400,000, a figure that includes his back taxes plus hefty interest and penalties. He's got an outstanding tax bill from the State of Pennsylvania for $200,000 now, too.
At his hearing, Stein asked for a sentence of community service, during which time he could begin to earn enough money to pay his back taxes.
"My businesses are in bankruptcy," Stein told the court. "I have few friends. What I do have, for the first time in 45 years, is a clear, sober mind, a healthy body and, I'm told, a talent and ability to create restaurants."
Any creating Stein does will have to done from a federal prison cell. The U.S. Attorney prosecuting the case wanted to send Stein away for 18 to 24 months. The judge gave him a year and a day.