PARIS — A Rumford woman convicted of defrauding Maine and the U.S. government of more than $18,000 in food stamps, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families and MaineCare benefits was sentenced Tuesday to 90 days of a two-year prison term.
Amy Knowlton, 30, pleaded before a judge in Oxford County Superior Court that she not be separated from her four children. One of them has an especially hard time dealing with changes to his life, she said.
“I fear that me being taken out of his life would be traumatic for him,” she said tearfully.
“Nothing I did or didn't do was intentional,” Knowlton said, and she was happy to pay restitution.
Knowlton was found guilty of felony theft by deception on May 23 and has appealed her conviction.
According to the state, she accepted food stamps, MaineCare and TANF benefits while failing to report the earnings of her then-boyfriend and now husband, Scott Knowlton, the father of her four children. A fisherman off the coast of Alaska, he earned more than $100,000 some years. She had full access to their shared bank account and used the money to manage his expenses and pay for their children's expenses.
Knowlton's attorney, Peter Rodway, argued Tuesday in Oxford County Superior Court for probation rather than jail time, citing her need to be home to take care of her four children.
“Probation is punishment,” Rodway said. It limits her movement and requires paying restitution in full. The experience of a public trial for a woman who'd never been in trouble before was punishment enough, he argued.
Assistant Attorney General Darcy Mitchell asked for a three-year prison sentence with all but one suspended. She said the fact that it wasn't financial desperation that led her to defraud the state was an aggravating factor that called for a longer sentence.
She said Knowlton “never took responsibility for her actions,” instead blaming confusing instructions from Department of Health and Human Services caseworkers.
At the sentencing, Knowlton's family and friends said she is a good mother and volunteers at the American Legion. Her husband said any jail time for her would make it difficult to provide for their family.
As a fisherman, he said, he is gone for days or weeks at a time. If his wife is gone, he'd have to take a lower-paying job locally and risk losing their house.
The court also received about a dozen letters from friends and family members in support of Knowlton and asking for a lighter sentence.
Mitchell argued that Knowlton's support network meant there would be people to help take care of the children. However, Scott Knowlton said their families live far from the Rumford area and couldn't take time off from work to help.
“My client is well-thought-of in her community,” Rodway said. She never meant to defraud the state, he said, adding caseworkers sometimes engaged in misconduct and encouraged recipients to lie about income.
“I'm not surprised that someone would wind up in my client's position,” he said.
Justice Robert Clifford said he couldn't accept Rodway's claims of his client's innocence.
“The jury rendered a verdict and I have to accept that verdict,” he said.
The courts have to be vigilant in preventing welfare fraud, and when Knowlton gained access to her husband's salary that “should have given notice” that her family shouldn't be receiving public assistance, he said.
However, her lack of a criminal record, her service to her community, her paying restitution and her role as a mother were considered in ordering her to spend 90 days in jail, not a year.
Knowlton will remain free on bail while her case is appealed to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. If her appeal fails, she will have to serve the jail time.
She was sentenced to two years probation with conditions she repay the $18,000.