As his voice cracked with emotion, Justin Oh-Lee apologized to his family, friends and colleagues for his crimes, and swore he would get better.
The former Central Michigan University psychology professor was charged in August for embezzling funds intended to pay research participants in a Parkinson’s disease study. He pocketed the money, and gambled it away at the Soaring Eagle Casino.
Oh-Lee was charged with embezzlement by an agent or trustee, and false pretenses. Both charges were between $20,000 and $50,000. After weeks of negotiations between Oh-Lee’s lawyers and the prosecution, he entered a plea of no contest in October for a single charge of embezzlement between $1,000 and $20,000.
At the final sentencing hearing, Monday, Oh-Lee was given a one-year suspended sentence, and ordered to pay $35,000 in restitution.
“It is clear that what I did was a mistake, irresponsible and inappropriate,” Oh-Lee said as he faced Judge Mark Duthie, with his wife and pastor in the stands behind him for support. “I was overtaken by a gambling addiction. I hurt my daughter, my wife and parents, and the rest of my family. What I did did not reflect the core values of the university. I’m very sorry for putting the university through this.”
He also thanked his family for supporting him throughout the investigation.
“I am grateful for the support of my family, friends and colleagues,” Oh-Lee said. “We have committed to keeping our family together. I take full responsibility for what I did. I hope those who I let down will forgive me.
“I will never repeat the same mistakes I’ve made.”
Receiving counseling at Gamblers Anonymous in Mount Pleasant, Oh-Lee was barred from any restaurants serving alcohol, despite there being no substance abuse problems in the report.
Oh-Lee’s attorney Joe Barberi further explained his client’s addiction and fall from grace.
“We all know the power of addiction,” Barberi said. “At the casino, there are cross addictions. Some people cannot leave their seat for fear they’re missing a winning number.”
Barberi also tried to convince Duthie to avoid sending Oh-Lee to prison. He asked the court to observe the 12 to 15 letters of support from Oh-Lee’s colleagues and reduce the felony charge to a high court misdemeanor so Oh-Lee can still seek employment.
Oh-Lee resigned from his teaching position before the start of the fall semester. The charge will be reduced if he completes the suspended sentence without incident.
“He’s already paid a high price for his actions,” Barberi said. “He’s been stripped of so much he has worked for. This is not the kind of case where the public sense of justice would result in incarceration. The fall is punishment enough.”
Duthie pointed out that due to the gravity of Oh-Lee’s crimes, incarceration was not out of the question.
“Give the nature of the crime, and the amount taken, that’s debatable,” Duthie said of Barberi’s statement. “Your case is just outrageously sad. You got hooked on gambling, did some things you shouldn’t have. Now you’re dealing with the consequences.
“There must be a punishment element.”
For the first 90 days of Oh-Lee’s one-year suspended sentence, he is ordered to be under house arrest and will be monitored by an electric tether. He is required to complete 400 hours of community service, pay a fine of $200, and $400 in court fees, in addition to the restitution.
Oh-Lee is only allowed to leave the state of Michigan to seek employment. “When money is stolen like this, I usually give jail time,” Duthie said. “You’re not going to jail today, but your freedom will be limited.”
Although Isabella County Principal Trial Attorney Mark Kowalczyk voiced no objections to the verdict, he noted the seriousness of Oh-Lee’s actions, and recommended he also be banned from online gambling sites during his sentence.
Kowalczyk worried that Oh-Lee’s crimes may tarnish the reputation of CMU, and its overall public trust.
“This was obviously a colossal betrayal at several levels,” Kowalczyk said. “As the result of what occurred here, it erodes the public trust for the university, especially for parents considering sending their kids here.”
Hoping CMU will analyze its policies in providing funding for faculty research projects, Kowalczyk said Oh-Lee’s gambling was “obviously an unhealthy coping mechanism.”
“University professors and officials are held to the highest standards,” he said. “If there’s any lack in protocol, it’s because CMU puts trust in people like Mr. Oh-Lee.”