Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn are looking to seize thousands of dollars in prison commissary funds from two sex criminals — making the request just as a top Justice Department official urged government attorneys to be more aggressive in collecting restitution from inmates.
In court filings last week, Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Breon Peace’s office asked to take $4,500 from the commissary account of a Queens man who lured an Australian teen to the U.S. for sex, and more than $11,000 from a Staten Island warehouse manager convicted of child pornography charges.
The filings come as the government faces criticism over letting federal inmates keep large sums in their commissary accounts while paying the minimum amount required to their victims.
The question of restitution has put the Justice Department at odds with the Bureau of Prisons, which uses more than $80 million each year in prisoner spending to help pay staff salaries, the Washington Post reported in August.
In a memo dated Friday, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco urged federal prosecutors to ask sentencing judges to seize money in accounts, and to “proactively” look for that money.
“Prosecutors should request that sentencing courts order that restitution be due and payable immediately, but if courts order otherwise, prosecutors should propose that payment plans be set at “the shortest time in which full payment can reasonably be made,” she wrote Friday.
In September, a judge allowed federal prosecutors to take R. Kelly’s nearly $28,000 commissary account, money the disgraced singer’s lawyer said came from donations by superfans, to pay his sex trafficking victims.
Federal prosecutors on Friday asked Judge Nicholas Garaufis — who sentenced Sean Price to 35 years in prison in 2018 to let them take nearly $4,500 of the more than $8,400 stashed away in his prison account.
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Price, 44, struck up an online correspondence with a troubled 16-year-old girl from Australia and convinced her to run away from her family and come to New York so they could have sex and she could work as a stripper to earn him money.
He planned and paid for her trip to the U.S. in May 2017, paying for her plane ticket from Sydney to Los Angeles, where he met her and drove her to Queens.
Federal prisoners are required to make minimum restitution payments of $25 every three months, and since his sentencing, Price has only paid $725 total, with more than half of that used to pay off a court fee, not his victim.
“The money should be applied to restitution to compensate the victim of the defendant’s criminal activity,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Beth Schwartz wrote in a letter Friday. “That the defendant will be incarcerated for approximately 35 years further weighs in favor of making the funds available to the victim now.”
Another convicted sex felon, Hakmet Othman, 48, managed to amass more than $11,000 in his commissary fund, and prosecutors asked on Thursday to take nearly all of it to start paying off his $33,000 restitution debt to child porn victims.
Othman, a father of six, was sentenced to five years in 2020 behind bars for downloading and sharing child pornography and surrendered to federal prison in July 2021. So far, he’s only paid $200 in restitution and $100 in fees, Schwartz wrote to Judge Pamela Chen, the sentencing judge in the case.
Restitution in child pornography cases is typically paid out to victims who have to deal with fresh trauma, paranoia and re-victimization as photos and videos of their abuse and rape continue to circulate online for years and decades.