A Brookfield attorney who pled guilty to felony fraud charges on Wednesday could face a stricter sentence structure than normal because of missed court appearances that resulted in his arrest and incarceration.
Thomas Bielinski, 52, admitted to one count of theft-false representation for stealing $542,231.61 through a complex foreclosure scam in Milwaukee. He faces a maximum of 10 years in state prison, a $25,000 fine, or both.
But the severity and breakdown of the sentence to be imposed by Milwaukee County Circuit Judge J.D. Watts on June 4 remains to be seen, based in part on the fact that Bielinski twice skipped his initial plea hearing Dec. 19.
Watts issued a bench warrant and law enforcement arrested Bielinski at Holy Hill in Hubertus on Dec. 21. He is being held on $1 million bail.
On Wednesday, Watts said the recommended sentence is for five years of prison time and five years of extended supervision, but he did not mention the missed court appearances.
“It’s definitely an aggravating factor,” Milwaukee Criminal defense attorney Craig Mastantuono, of Mastantuono Law Office SC, said of the missed hearing. “What it does is seal the deal in terms of incarceration versus probation.”
Bielinski defense attorney Michael Hart, of Kohler & Hart SC, declined to comment on the impact that the missed appearances could have on his client’s sentence.
He said the two-month delay in the plea hearing didn’t influence the agreement with the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office to plead guilty.
“This is what we’ve been talking about for awhile,” Hart said.
But prosecuting attorney Kurt Benkley said Watts can evaluate the no-shows in conjunction with the underlying crime to craft a punishment.
“It’s a factor I think the judge will consider at sentencing,” he said. “But the maximum he can impose in this case is 10 years, regardless of the fact that Mr. Bielinski failed to appear.”
The courts didn’t consider Bielinski a flight risk when he made his initial appearance in court Aug. 31. Judicial Court Commissioner Barry Slagle set a $10,000 personal recognizance bail and Bielinski made all five of his court appearances prior to Dec. 19.
Still, Mastantuono said the misstep will make it harder for the defense to argue for leniency, especially since Bielinski ended up in prison while the case was still pending.
“I’d rather have a client sentenced in a business suit,” he said, “rather than an orange suit.”
While representing a client in street clothes shows the court that the defendant abided by pre-trial guidelines, Milwaukee criminal defense attorney John Birdsall, of Birdsall Law Offices SC, said the facts of the case determine the sentence.
Given that Bielinski stole $542,000 from the county, Birdsall said Watts will likely use that as a determinant factor.
“That’s a healthy amount of money,” he said. “It will absolutely be the central issue.”
Birdsall said the missed court date will be mentioned during sentencing, but that it likely won’t have a major impact on the punishment, relative to the fraud conviction.
At the Wednesday hearing, Benkley said the state will likely be seeking full restitution from Bielinski.
Benkley said there are “20-25” victims who had claims against the county and the charge against Bielinski subsumed the thefts into one aggregated theft.
According to the criminal complaint filed Aug. 23 by Benkley, Bielinski targeted mortgage-foreclosure cases in which there was surplus money from sheriff’s sales.
If the winning bids for foreclosed property are more than what is owed to the creditor, the difference goes into a trust and can be claimed by the owner of the property when it went into foreclosure, said Debbie Bachun, fiscal and operations manager for the Milwaukee County Clerk of Courts office.
Owners of foreclosed properties were entitled to surplus money held in trust by the clerk’s office, but they had never filed a claim, according to the complaint. Bielinski purported to represent the owners and claimed the money, according to the complaint.
None of the identified victims told investigators they knew Bielinski or had given him authorization to represent them, according to the complaint.
“The judge,” Birdsall said, “isn’t just going to ignore the totality of the crime.”