A former Amtrak official caught steering $30,000 in business to his wife’s photo company to take pictures of families in front of a Polar Express exhibit narrowly dodged a prison sentence Tuesday after a judge said he was inclined to impose one.
Instead, U.S. District Judge Charles Kocoras ordered Benjamin Sheets, 50, to serve three months in community confinement in a deal arranged to help Sheets keep a new job he found after he was fired last fall as the head of transportation at Union Station.
Before learning his sentence for the scheme revolving around Amtrak’s Polar Express Train Ride holiday event, Sheets told Kocoras “I am deeply sorry.”
“In a million years, I would have never imagined standing here today,” Sheets said.
Sheets faced a year or more in prison after he pleaded guilty last October to lying to the government and admitted he steered photo work for the holiday event to his wife’s suburban business, Life Reflections.
William Ziegelmueller, Sheets’ lawyer, wrote in court papers that Sheets is now an hourly employee at a hardware store. He also told the judge that Sheets is in line for a promotion to a salaried position. Though Kocoras said he had been leaning toward a three-month prison sentence, he noted that Sheets’ conviction had already cost him one job, and the judge didn’t want the sentence to cost Sheets another.
The scam also cost Sheets his membership in the local Boy Scouts of America Pathway to Adventure Council, officials have said.
Sheets sent his wife a schedule in July 2016 for Amtrak’s Polar Express Train Ride, which occurs in December and is based on the popular Christmas book and movie. He told her to research a “whole package deal for everything” a few months later, records show.
In November 2016, after she sent him an email laying out family debt exceeding $25,000, Sheets replied in an email: “We need to write an agreement for Polar Express.”
That same month, Sheets awarded the Polar Express photography work to his wife’s company without following Amtrak’s procurement procedures. The company sold 3,679 photos at $10 each in Union Station’s Great Hall in December 2016, records show.
The scheme began to unravel when Sheets’ supervisor encountered Sheets and his wife in the Great Hall and was “surprised” to see Sheets’ wife there, records show.
Sheets claimed the company running the Polar Express event had struck a deal with his wife’s business. He made arrangements for that company to pay his wife’s business $30,535 after billing a subcontractor, records show. He also had phony documents drawn up to back it all up and then lied to the Amtrak inspector general’s agents in a March 6, 2017, interview.
“Had Mr. Sheets believed there was anything wrong with his wife providing photography services, he would not have worked openly, with his wife, in the photography booth in the Great Hall of Union Station,” Ziegelmueller wrote in a court memo.
But the attorney also conceded, “it is not the initial mistake but the cover-up that led Mr. Sheets to this courtroom.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Terry Kinney told Kocoras the company implicated by Sheets incurred significant expense to prove it was not involved.
The judge also noted that another company might have lost out on the chance to land the photo deal because of Sheets’ actions.
“I’m sorry you did what you did,” Kocoras told Sheets.