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‘I kept going’: Man gets 18 months for putting $500K on company cards

Dirksen Federal Courthouse, 219 S. Dearborn St.

A variety of local and federal officials gathered Friday to celebrate the 200th year of federal courts in Illinois; most judges in Illinois' Northern District have offices in the Dirksen Federal Courthouse in the Loop. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Robert Palmer blew through nearly $500,000 on his company credit cards in seven years, prosecutors say.

He spent the money on personal expenses — airline tickets, hotel rooms, groceries, restaurants and tickets to sporting events and concerts, court records show.

Then, when he was finally fired in November 2014, he simply explained, “nobody caught me, so I kept going.”

U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber sentenced Palmer to 18 months in federal prison Thursday, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. He admitted last March he had committed wire fraud while working for U.S. Cellular between 2007 and 2014, according to court records.

Palmer’s attorney says he is “sorry for his conduct, embarrassed and terrified.”

“Never in his wildest dreams did he think that he would be in federal court facing the prospect of a substantial incarceration sentence,” attorney Phillip A. Turner wrote in a court memo before the sentencing. “He very much appreciates the wrongful nature of his conduct and that not only is it wrong, but that it can cause you to be incarcerated for a substantial period of your life.”

In a statement, U.S. Cellular said: “We take employee theft matters very seriously. We prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, and we are happy with today’s outcome.”

Though the case against Palmer revolved around his conduct at U.S. Cellular, prosecutors also alleged that Palmer put personal expenses on a company credit card after he found a new job at Allstate. Turner said Palmer did not submit those purchases for payment.

Prosecutors said Palmer worked for U.S. Cellular as an executive assistant and had access to a vice president’s email, as well as the credentials the vice president used to access expense reports.

The feds say Palmer went into the vice president’s email and “set up a rule” that sent all emails related to expense reports to the “Deleted Items” folder. He then submitted fraudulent expense reports and used the vice president’s credentials to approve and submit payments for them.

In his memo, Palmer’s attorney insisted that some expenses — like company suites at White Sox events with “excessive tips,” grocery purchases, paintball and bowling events — were legitimate company expenses.

“In his role as support personnel for various company teams, Robert Palmer had to purchase all sorts of items,” Turner wrote. “This is the reason that he was provided credit cards by the company.”

Still, the feds accused Palmer of making $490,763 in personal purchases on company cards. They said U.S. Cellular also had to pay an auditing firm $82,793 to look into the losses. The judge ordered Palmer to pay $573,556 in restitution.

Assistant U.S. Attorney John D. Mitchell wrote in his own court memo that “Palmer did not have a particular addiction or financial need for the money.”

Instead, Mitchell wrote, Palmer was “motivated purely by greed.”