PORTLAND — A judge and a state prosecutor who is known for being tough on welfare cheats gave a Portland woman a rare break on Wednesday.

Wilhermina Rodriguez, 36, received a suspended sentence for two convictions of theft by deception. She took $77,000 in state aid for which she was ineligible.

Instead of going to jail — Rodriguez faced a maximum of six months — she walked out of Cumberland County Superior Court a free woman, alongside her three children and her husband, who recently rejoined the family.

Justice Thomas Warren and Assistant Attorney General Leanne Robbin said the leniency was appropriate, given Rodriguez’s upstanding conduct since she was confronted by state officials in 2005.

“I’m the sort of person who is always asking for jail time,” Robbin said after the sentencing. “But this was that rare case in which the defendant did so well when she was out on bail, she exceeded everyone’s expectations.

“If you turn your life around like this, we are not going to be asking for six months in jail,” Robbin said.

A decade ago, Rodriguez was pregnant with her third child and her husband left the family. She lived in Portland with assistance from the Portland Housing Authority, food stamps and the state’s Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program.

In 2001 Rodriguez landed a job as a secretary. Under welfare rules, she should have informed the state about her change in income. But she didn’t, and she continued to collect benefits.

From 2001 to 2005, Rodriguez collected about $77,000 in state assistance that she should not have received. Rodriguez had no prior criminal record.

Officials found out about Rodriguez’s employment, and the Attorney General’s Office charged her with theft by deception.

“From that moment, she admitted what she had done, and she said she would pay the money back,” Robbin said. “Nobody thought she could do it.”

Rodriguez pleaded guilty and has repaid about $22,000, sometimes at the rate of $800 a month. She is expected to repay another $18,000, and the state is prepared to write off the rest of the money she owes.

“The state is in an unusual position of advocating for no jail time,” Robbin told Justice Warren. “She has done an extraordinary job and this is an entirely appropriate resolution.”

Warren agreed. He told Rodriguez that “people put some trust in you and you’ve proven that was something that was earned.”

Rodriguez’ lawyer, Clifford Strike, appreciated the willingness of Robbin and Warren to treat his client as an individual.

“It is just so rare to see a person respond like she has, and she has done it with such spirit,” said Strike, of the firm Strike, Goodwin & O’Brien in Portland. “You just can’t ask for a better result.”

 

Staff Writer Trevor Maxwell can be contacted at 791-6451 or at:

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