For Susie Buffett, the theft of $46,000 wasn't just a criminal act against the foundation set up by her father, Warren Buffett, and named after her mother, Susan Thompson Buffett.
It was personal.
“It feels to me like a direct assault on my mother,” Susie Buffett said Wednesday. “My mother's name is on the front door. There was no finer person in the world than my mother. And it's not OK.”
The man who committed the theft, former program officer Dhaval S. Patel, was sentenced Wednesday to 180 days in the Douglas County Jail and five years of probation for stealing from the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation, a foundation that the Omaha billionaire named after his late wife.
Patel, 39, who traveled the world monitoring charities that received the foundation's grants, had wept for the hour he awaited sentencing. He never directly addressed Susie Buffett, the foundation chairwoman, or Allen Greenberg, the foundation president, or a handful of other foundation employees who watched the sentencing from the back row of the courtroom.
“He did not apologize,” Susie Buffett said outside court, shaking her head.
Indirectly, he did. During a tearful, 10-minute monologue, Patel said: “I do feel this great amount of remorse and sorrow for my mistakes and actions. I hurt a lot of people. ... I truly am sorry. I really am.”
Patel, who made $192,000 a year, acknowledged that his theft was fueled by greed — by this “need to try to keep up with the Joneses as far as material things.”
He also talked several times about the four days he spent in jail — away from his wife and young son — after his arrest in May.
“Until then, I don't think I ever understood what rock bottom was,” Patel said.
Patel and his attorney, Jason Troia, had pushed for Douglas County District Judge Leigh Ann Retelsdorf to limit his jail time to the four days he already had served.
Retelsdorf rejected that idea. With credit for good behavior, he will spend about three months in jail. And the judge warned him that he would face resentencing if he messes up his probation.
Patel, who paid back the foundation, had faced up to 20 years in prison. A probation officer preparing a presentence report recommended he receive probation.
Troia said his client was both ashamed and abundantly aware of the damage he had done to his career.
Patel has a doctorate and had worked for worldwide health charities before joining the Buffett foundation about two years ago.
Troia rattled off several reference letters that credited Patel for his work in third-world countries. Troia said Patel, who has a master's degree in public health and a doctorate in communication, had spent his career on issues such as AIDS, malaria and women's health.
“He's devoted his life to helping disadvantaged people,” Troia said.
Greenberg, the Buffett Foundation president, said the foundation had a different impression of Patel, even before the theft came to light: Arrogant. Underperforming. Less than ambitious.
Then came the questionable reimbursement requests.
From December to April, Patel stole $46,000 by making up lodging and airline expenses from his various travels around the world to monitor charities that received the foundation's money.
He sought reimbursement for lodging and airfare to places such as London, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda — expenses that often had been prepaid.
Among the charities Patel was checking on was CARE, which fights poverty worldwide.
None of the charities lost money because of Patel's actions, Greenberg said. However, foundation staff had to contact the charities to scrutinize what Patel was claiming.
“We have a professional relationship with those organizations,” Greenberg said. “When you have to start asking a bunch of questions, they start wondering 'What's going on?' So it was damaging. But we've moved past it.”
“I'm glad he's serving time,” Susie Buffett said. “He deserves to sit in jail and think about what he's done.”
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