A locomotive called prison time was barreling toward the former treasurer of a west Omaha neighborhood association Tuesday.

In a Douglas County courtroom, a prosecutor had mentioned that former Omaha resident David Campagna’s full restitution payments didn’t erase the fact that he wrote himself dozens of checks over several years — costing the Armbrust Acres Homeowners Association more than $172,000 and countless hours of financial cleanup.

Two leaders of the neighborhood near 168th Street and West Center Road had talked about the violation of trust, the months it took to restore Armbrust’s books and the $300 that each of the association’s 549 homeowners had to fork over as a special assessment for park improvements.

The judge had noted that burglars who steal furniture from a house are still felons, even if they return the furniture.

Sensing that his client was about to go to prison, Omaha attorney J. William Gallup, 84, in his 60th year of practicing law, unleashed a spectacle of insults and invocations.

He upbraided a prosecutor with 12 years in court as “inexperienced” and spouting “nonsense,” called his 56-year-old client a “young man,” vowed that a courtroom is his church, compared himself to an imperfect Jesus (“our first criminal defense lawyer”) whose job was to remind people that “he who is without sin should cast the first stone” and repeated his oft-spoken invocation that judges are “legal priests dispensing the holy sacrament of justice.”

“If you put this young man in prison, you’re making his lawyer out to be a liar and an idiot who couldn’t properly evaluate this case,” Gallup said.

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Gallup — who long ago told jurors in closing arguments that he would hang himself if they convicted his client (they did/he didn’t) — wound up his rant by decrying neighborhood leaders as simply wanting a pound of flesh.

“They’re lucky they’re getting a damn dime,” he said loudly.

At that, Judge J Russell Derr wrenched his face.

“Hmm,” the judge said. “I’ve been doing this a long time, and that’s the first time I’ve ever heard counsel say the victims are lucky they’re getting their money back.”

Gallup later apologized, saying he may have misspoken. He meant only that most thieves don’t repay the money.

The 40-minute sentencing hearing — most take 15 minutes, tops — led Judge Derr to call a 5-minute recess. A probation officer had recommended a probation term — and the judge said he wanted to review his restitution order.

He returned with his sentence: five years’ probation with the first 90 days served in jail, and about $172,000 in restitution. Campagna, who already had paid $149,000, was expected to pay the remaining $33,000 on Tuesday. The 56-year-old, who had moved to Florida, had faced up to 20 years in prison.

The result, including the felony conviction and restitution, capped a mess caused by Campagna.

According to court documents:

Before he moved from Omaha in 2017, Campagna volunteered as treasurer of Armbrust and president of the Concordia Legion baseball organization. For work, he owned a business called Precision Fax/Med Fax Direct and a music lesson franchise called School of Rock near 132nd and L Streets.

Late in 2017, Brandon Devere joined the Armbrust association board and soon discovered several irregularities.

Among them, Devere discovered that Campagna, who has a master’s degree in business administration, had written several checks from the Armbrust Acres account to the School of Rock. The neighborhood board then asked Les Robbins, an accountant who has lived in the neighborhood for 28 years, to dig into the books.

Robbins said the neighborhood’s books and bank accounts were “a mess.”

“The books were bogus ... incomplete and fabricated,” Robbins said. “Records were missing. He was attempting to hide his embezzlement, to confuse and divide.”

Fraud investigators routinely warn community organizations, governments and small business owners to make sure they have at least two sets of eyes on financial records and at least two signatures authorizing expenditures. At the time, the neighborhood had neither.

Campagna, who had received authority to write checks from Armbrust’s account in 2007, had taken control of the books and was essentially writing checks to himself through his business.

At one point, he wrote a $500 check from Concordia Legion Baseball to Armbrust Acres for reimbursement — leading authorities to question whether he had been loose with other organizations’ accounts, Robbins said. (Campagna was not charged with theft from anyone but Armbrust.)

In the end, a once-healthy Armbrust account — it takes in about $60,000 in dues per year — was in the red. The neighborhood association had to pay fees for overdrawing its bank account. And it had to assess $300 per homeowner to pay for neighborhood improvements, including the renovation of a park.

“Had he not embezzled,” Robbins said, “the 549 homeowners would not have had to pay that assessment.”

Prosecutor Sarah Moore, a deputy Douglas County attorney, noted that Campagna didn’t pay back a dime until he got caught. She questioned whether he should avoid prison because he could afford restitution. Those who can’t pay go to prison, she noted.

“What was discovered was devastating,” Devere said. “We were very lucky it didn’t cripple the homeowners association.”

Reporter - Courts

Todd Cooper covers courts, lawyers, trials, legal issues, the justice system and government wrongdoing for The World-Herald. Follow him on Twitter @CooperonCourts. Phone: 402-444-1275.

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