When a botched medical procedure left Donna Johnson a double amputee, she sold her three-story brick home in Philadelphia and bought a more accessible ranch-style house, counting on a financial settlement she was awarded in 2009 from a lawsuit.
But about half of the settlement — or $433,000 — was stolen. It went to support the gambling habit of her attorney, Harry Levant, who had promised her the award would be wisely invested.
“My world crumbled in May of 2014 when I was informed that all my money no longer existed,” Johnson would later tell a judge before Levant pleaded guilty in 2015 to theft and forgery. “I will never forgive Mr. Levant for what he has done to me. He needs to be punished and pay for what he has done.”
Though he admitted fleecing a dozen clients, including a relative, out of $2 million, Levant walked out of court with no jail time, receiving up to about a combined 10 years of parole and probation. The sentence left victims angry and many in the city’s legal community puzzled.
Because he violated his probation by missing nine monthly restitution payments so far, Levant has been brought back in Philadelphia Common Pleas court. He has a payment plan conference scheduled for next Wednesday. It all has left some wondering: Why didn’t he spend any time behind bars?
“It changed my perception of the justice system,” said attorney Nicholas Guiliano, who represented two of the victims in confidential arbitration claims against the brokerage firm from which Levant stole funds. “That, in fact, there are two systems of justice out there. One for people who are connected and one for people who are not connected.”
Levant once ran for judge of Common Pleas. High-profile members of the legal community, family, a business owner and even state Rep. Dwight Evans, a longtime friend, testified on his behalf at the sentencing hearing.
His defense attorney at the 2015 sentencing, Tariq El-Shabazz, a family friend, this year became a top lieutenant in the Philadelphia district attorney’s office. Also, months after Levant was sentenced, his sister-in-law was named chief of staff in the DA’s office.
There is no evidence to suggest that Levant’s political connections swayed Common Pleas Judge Edward Wright to impose what victims’ advocates see as a lenient sentence. Yet interviews with more than a dozen criminal law experts — including defense attorneys and current and former prosecutors — suggest the sentence was highly unusual given the number of counts against Levant and the amount of money he stole.
Levant’s defense attorneys counter that, because he turned himself in, had no prior record and is committed to paying back victims, his sentence was justified.
The ability to work in order to compensate his victims was a major part of the argument for no prison time.
Confession after hitting rock bottom
Levant, 52, who lives in the Roxborough section of Philadelphia, is currently disbarred and waiting tables. He’s the father of three children who attend public schools.
For years, he was an active and outspoken leader of a group dedicated to the interests of public school parents in the Roxborough area. He highlighted those achievements when he filled out a public questionnaire as a candidate for judge in 2011.
He also noted disparities he saw in the court system in that questionnaire. “I believe a disconnect exists between the court and our community,” Levant wrote. “With my extensive experience and knowledge of the inner workings of the courtroom, I understand what is required to keep cases moving forward in a fair and time efficient manner.”
His friends at the sentencing hearing testified that Levant is a compassionate and caring person whose streak of crime was an aberration of character.
Levant’s thievery started in January 2012, according to court documents. That was not long after his unsuccessful run for Common Pleas judge.
After gambling for years, he hit rock bottom and confessed to prosecutors that he had repeatedly cheated clients out of large sums of money.
But in charging documents, investigators note that some of his victims were on to him before he self-reported.
Richard Lepore, who hired Levant to represent him in a civil suit over a car accident, told detectives that he became aware that a $23,000 settlement check had been cashed in his name without his permission. Lepore learned about this in June 2013. The following September, Levant admitted to taking the whole amount, instead of a third, which is all Lepore agreed that he should receive.
Lepore did not return calls seeking comment. It is unclear from court documents whether Lepore, or any of Levant’s other victims, reported his theft to authorities before Levant turned himself in.
Until now, Levant’s case has been handled by the Philadelphia district attorney’s office, but that’s changing. It has been referred to prosecutors in Delaware County “to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest,” said Philadelphia district attorney spokesman Cameron Kline.
“Mr. Levant has a relative who is an attorney with the Philadelphia district attorney’s office,” said Emily Harris, spokeswoman with the Delaware County district attorney’s office, in a statement.
Neither Kline nor Harris would elaborate on the conflict, but nine months after Levant was sentenced, his sister-in-law, Kathleen Martin, was appointed by Seth Williams to be his chief of staff and chief integrity officer.
Back when Judge Edward Wright read Levant’s sentence from the bench last February, a number of witnesses took the stand, including longtime state Rep. Dwight Evans, who is poised to become a congressman in November.
“He’s someone who volunteered for me, and I say this to you, this is the first time I’m publicly ever being in a courtroom to testify for someone,” Evans told the judge. “I’ve also known Harry since I can say he was a kid. I’ve known him for a while, and I’ve seen him grow up, and I know the kind of person he is.”
Yet the victims of Levant’s schemes were familiar with another side of him.
Take Susan Bennett. She’s Levant’s sister-in-law. After going through a divorce, Levant told Bennett he would help her invest $1.2 million. Instead, Levant cashed checks without her permission, forged her signatures, and made transfers from her account to his own more than two dozen times.
“This repulsive act of theft by Harry J. Levant has tentacles so deep that every time I answer a phone, open an email, or receive a regular piece of mail, another problem arises,” Bennett told the judge. “I have had to hire attorneys, tax consultants, and had to apply for benefits from the state of New Jersey, only to be denied … he has betrayed my trust and has stolen my future.”
Then there’s Tracy Lacy, from whom Levant stole $22,000 after hiring him to handle a personal injury suit arising from a car accident involving a drunken driver.
“Harry Levant is a manipulative thief and liar who preyed on people like me who trusted him,” Lacy said at the hearing.
Tariq El-Shabazz, who now works for the Philadelphia district attorney’s office, represented Levant during the sentencing hearing, and emphasized Levant’s gambling addiction.
“There is another victim, I submit to the court, in this case as well,” El-Shabazz told the judge. “And that victim is a person that is a victim of what I submit to you is an addiction.”
Several times in a long, spirited argument, El-Shabazz compared gambling addiction to being addicted to crack.
“Gambling is just as addictive because it’s a high that occurs in one’s mind,” El-Shabazz said.
Defense attorney Bob Levant, who is Harry’s brother and testified at the hearing, underscored that point.
“He just kept coming back for it until he bellied up,” said Bob Levant, who declined to comment for this story. “It’s some pretty scary stuff.”
Harry Levant understood the harm he has caused, El-Shabazz said. He’s now attending Gamblers Anonymous meetings. Though he has been disbarred, Levant would work hard to find another job, El-Shabazz promised. And he carried a $6,000 money order into the courtroom to give to the victims.
“I think that indicates that he’s sincere,” El-Shabazz said.
Levant can seek better rehabilitation outside of prison, El-Shabazz said, and generating income will hasten payments to the victims.
“You can send him away for five years to hell, you can send him away for nine months, but at the end of the day during the nine-month period, who’s getting paid?” El-Shabazz asked the judge.
‘I’m a compulsive gambler’
Those at the hearing say before what happened next, the mood was tense. Victims and their families were sobbing.
Levant himself walked to the witness stand and sat down.
“Judge, my name is Harry Levant, and I’m a compulsive gambler,” he said. “Gambling addiction took control of my life and made my life unmanageable and caused a irreparable harm for which I am solely responsible.”
Levant told the court that his schemes violated the truth and bond of his family.
“I do not in any way ask your forgiveness. I’m not entitled to that. What I do pledge to you is I will do everything in my power to make it as right as possible. I will work diligently as hard as I can to repay you.”
Assistant District Attorney Doug Rhoads asked that Levant be jailed for his crimes.
“I’ve tried to find different ways to articulate this scale of what was stolen, and I can say that $2 million, I can say that 59 transactions, which was required to take the money from one victim alone,” Rhoads told the judge. “I’ve tried all different ways to grapple with that scale. At the end of the day, that’s only a number on a piece of paper. I think really what today’s about is the victims’ voice, and that’s what this theft really means.”
Rhoads reminded the court of a case in which an attorney, like Levant, turned himself in after stealing from clients. That defendant received two years in prison. But Rhoads noted that some other similar large-scale thefts have resulted in up to four years of incarceration.
It’s not unusual for major theft prosecutions to result in serious time behind bars.
Just a month after Levant’s sentencing hearing, another defendant was accused of stealing tens of thousands of dollars and two cars from a veteran, leaving the elderly man homeless. The defendant, Melvin McIlwaine, was found guilty of seven counts involving fraud and theft. He was sentenced to seven to 14 years in prison.
Pennsylvania’s standard sentencing guideline for theft of more than $100,000 is between probation and around two years in prison per count. Prosecutors charged Levant with 42 felonies and one misdemeanor. As part of a deal, he pleaded guilty to 13 charges, one for each victim.
Levant’s maximum possible sentence was around 24 years in prison.
Attorney Nicholas Guiliano said abusing a position of trust and confidence to the tune of $2 million should have ended with prison time.
“It’s an aberration to see an attorney betray that trust and wipe out someone’s life savings and never have to go to jail,” Guiliano said. “It’s a travesty of justice.”
Defense attorney Trevan Borum, who is representing Levant now, defended the sentence.
“My client self-reported crimes that were otherwise unknown to any authorities,” Borum said. “The court heard substantial evidence of his otherwise good character and lifelong service to the community.”
Five of Levant’s 13 victims have been paid back in full — mostly through the Pennsylvania Lawyers Fund for Client Security, which has paid victims some $186,000, according to the fund’s records. The fund essentially is insurance for victims of attorney abuse and fraud. Levant now owes the fund what it has paid out to his victims.
Court records show that Levant still owes victims $1.7 million; some victims, according to Guiliano, are not feeling hopeful about repayment.
“Nobody ever thinks they’re going to get restitution,” Guiliano said. “Neither of my clients are banking on it.”
Part of his probation at sentencing stipulated that Levant avoid casinos and have mental health counseling. It also requires that 60 percent of Levant’s income go directly to victims, something Levant has had trouble sustaining. The judge issued a new order now requring Levant to pay $500 a month to his victims.
Since his sentencing hearing, Levant has made 13 monthly payments to the courts that are shared among victims. Most of the payments were $500. But he also missed nine months of payments according to court records.
Levant has had violation of probation hearings scheduled earlier this year, but the hearings have been repeatedly pushed back.
The Delaware County district attorney’s office confirmed that the victims of Levant’s fraud have been invited to the Wednesday hearing in Philadelphia.