December 22, 2002
THE TEN COMMANDMENTS
Embezzlement Conviction Burdens a Woman of ContradictionsBy CHRIS HEDGES
New York Times
Anne Compoccia wanted to be a nun. She wanted to make enough money to take her family out of chronic debt. And she wanted power, the kind that would allow her to walk through the streets of Little Italy in Lower Manhattan, where she grew up, and be respected and maybe even feared. In all those disparate wants she struggled, stumbled and fell until she found herself in prison for embezzling city funds.
Angel Franco/The New York TimesAnne Compoccia, who works cleaning at a Midtown hotel for the homeless, served a 10-month sentence for embezzling.
Now on probation, Ms. Compoccia copes with contradictions that are inherent in all human lives. These contradictions are evident in her small apartment. The rooms are filled with cuddly stuffed animals, yet she admits she stormed through Little Italy on fund-raising drives, threatening store owners who did not contribute to her causes. She faithfully attends Mass and describes her religious education as forming her core and her beliefs.
Yet, she accepts that she stole. There is much that clashes like breakers inside her. "Life," she said, "is upside down."
The commandment against stealing is clear and simple. But for many, the moral weight assigned to such an action can be more complicated. In Ms. Compoccia's case, she believes she can justify her stealing because she did it for a noble reason — her family.
The theft was the culmination of a life spent trying to flee turmoil and debt. Growing up, she thought she could find solace in the convent, escape the volatility of her home and dedicate her life to religious service. But her two tries to enter religious orders ended in failure.
"I have always had a thing to be a nun," said Ms. Compoccia, 54. "I don't know why. I have always been connected with nuns. I went on the retreats. But they were looking for highly educated people, young women who were prim and proper. They did not want me. They did not want tough street fighters that could go out and work with people."
She paused, took a long drag on her cigarette and looked wistful. "It is a scar," she said. "How many people get rejected twice from a convent?"
Debt always plagued her family, especially her father, who had a weakness for card games and the easy money of loan sharks. Her home was colored by loud words and the constant search for enough cash to get through the month. She dropped out of high school and went to work. "My family was terribly disappointed," she said.
She worked a variety of jobs, including a stint at the Cella's candy factory, an experience that left in her hating chocolate-covered cherries. She ran the family cafe and organized fund-raising drives for Catholic charity groups. She directed a Catholic youth organization on the Lower East Side. "I threatened the kids that if they did not go to church I would hit them with a baseball bat," she said.
She took over the family cafe in 1973 and turned to embrace the world of secular power and influence. By then family debts, she said, had spiraled out of control. She also started a women's organization at St. Ann's, her local parish. The group held fund-raisers for the church and handed out food baskets on the Lower East Side. Her charity and community work led to her appointment as a Democratic district leader in 1979. In 1986, she started the Little Italy Chamber of Commerce. In 1988, she became the chairwoman of Community Board 1.
As the head of the Chamber of Commerce she began to collect about $80,000 in 1995 from merchants on Mulberry Street for a summer pedestrian mall. She moved about Little Italy with increasing confidence, although her fund-raising tactics were raw.
"I would walk into a store and if they refused to donate money I'd ask them if they might consider making a 10-dollar donation so all their windows wouldn't get broken," she said. "I never understood these people that did not want to help others."
Cafe 121, first bought by her grandfather, was crumbling. After the city closed it down for failing to pay sales tax, she borrowed more money to reopen the place. She had borrowed $8,000 to pay for her father's funeral in 1985, an event that she said was filmed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation because of his alleged links with the mafia. She began to take antidepressants. She developed an obsessive-compulsive disorder, constantly wringing her hands or picking up and putting down the receiver on the phone.
Then she had the chance to handle big money. The city charged the organizers of the yearly San Gennaro festival with skimming money for the Genovese crime family from vendors, and the committee was shut down in 1996.
Ms. Compoccia formed a new committee called Children of San Gennaro and promised to clean up the mess. She was, with this promise, given a license. She collected fees of $1,500 to $2,000 from those who set up booths and concession stands. The feast usually grossed about $700,000.
She speaks proudly of the money she turned over to the church each year, but admits that the temptation to borrow funds to prop up her crumbling cafe and pay off family debts was too tempting.
"I had lost all my credit trying to save the cafe," she said. "My brother made street loans and took loans from friends to pour money into this abyss that kept losing money. I had inherited a lot of debts from my mother and father. My brother had gambling debts. I was in debt now for close to $200,000. I didn't have any checking account because of the liens against it from my own poor credit. The cafe can't have a credit account because is has liens against it."
And with so much cash passing through her hands, the temptation, she said, became too easy too often.
"I get the bright idea that since I needed a checking account I would use the Chamber of Commerce checking account," she said. "I deposited my paycheck and whatever little money came out of the cafe in there. I used that checking account to pay my personal bills and the cafe's bills. I used to pay the city sales tax out of the Chamber of Commerce account and the city never said anything. I never thought this was wrong."
In 1996, she began to deposit the fees, which were supposed to go to the city, into the account from the shops and restaurants on the pedestrian mall.
"When the situation got desperate I started putting checks or money orders from businesses made out to the City of New York into the Chamber of Commerce account," she said. "I was touching that money to help me survive the disasters that were around me. I kept trying to replace it."
But she could not keep up.
The tangled finances prompted the city's Department of Investigation look into her bookkeeping. She was arrested and convicted of embezzling between $70,000 and $120,000, and in March 2001 she was sentenced to serve a 10-month sentence — five months in the Brooklyn Community Corrections Center and five months in home detention, as well as restitution of $84,000.
"I would never deliberately break one of the Ten Commandments," Ms. Compoccia said. "I know stealing is wrong, but in my mind I was not stealing because I intended to replace the money I took. I would never walk into a Macy's and shoplift. I was in a desperate situation. I wanted to save my family and my family business and this led me to do things that were wrong."
She said many of her friends, or people she calls her "so-called friends," abandoned her.
"She went down, way down, and in that fall she bruised her soul and her body," said Friar John-Marie Cassese, 76, a close friend from the Padua Friary. "But she has paid the price to society and to God. This experience will make her a better person. Even the saints began with failures and needed forgiveness. Look at St. Peter, who denied Christ three times. None of us are exempt. We all, every day, commit sins, mistreat in small and big ways God's creatures, and must ask for forgiveness. She was tempted and succumbed but has accepted what she did. It is human."
But the ostracism still burns within Ms. Compoccia. "I tried to call people, ask what was going on, what was happening," she said. "No one would talk to me. My church, my God, religion teaches me to forgive. I asked for forgiveness. There were a million other ways they could have punished me for what I did."
Her role as a leader in the neighborhood and Catholic community evaporated. On May 14, 2001, she started working for $7 an hour cleaning at the Barbour, a drab hotel for the homeless. The Barbour, where Ms. Compoccia continues to work, is one of the seven residences in the city run by Praxis, an organization that operates transitional housing programs.
She was thrown off the community board and stripped of her other community positions. She was fired from her job at Health and Human Resources.
"What am I going to tell an employer now: `Excuse me, I'm a convicted felon?' " she said. "I am destroyed. I have experienced fear, humiliation and disgrace. I have lost everything I worked so hard for."
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company