HAMMOND | A federal judge on Friday sentenced a former East Chicago school treasurer to five months in prison for taking a bribe.
U.S. District Judge Philip Simon said Francisco "Frank" Ramirez received a more lenient sentence because of his cooperation with federal authorities. Ramirez is scheduled to report to federal authorities to begin serving his sentence by 2 p.m. Feb. 25.
Ramirez sat next to his lawyer Thomas Vanes as he quietly accepted his sentence and expressed his shame and remorse in court.
Ramirez said he knew it was wrong to accept the bribe, but he did so under the "pervasive" air of entitlement he alleged permeates East Chicago.
"I'd like to say I am very ashamed and remorseful for my actions," Ramirez said.
"I knew what I was getting into was wrong," he said in the courtroom. "There is an atmosphere around school city, an atmosphere of arrogance, even with (former East Chicago Mayor George) Pabey himself. I became part of that inner circle, and what came about were my actions.
"It was almost like, it's our turn now. I knew better than anybody that it was wrong. I have eight children. I've been very honest with them. We want them to have faith, work hard and be bright," he said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Gary Bell said Ramirez's actions violated the trust of the School City of East Chicago and the city's residents. Ramirez's sentence needs to reflect that violation as a deterrent, Bell said.
However, Bell also said Ramirez had been the "most cooperative witness" that prosecutors had.
"Out of more than 30 people in Lake County that we have prosecuted in the last few years, most of whom are from East Chicago, Ramirez is the first to offer full cooperation," Bell said.
"When an agent went to his house, he confessed. He was honest, sincere and contrite. Even with others who have been convicted, they have not been contrite or remorseful," Bell said.
Bell recommended the minimum sentence for Ramirez because of his cooperation.
Simon expressed surprise that Ramirez took a bribe when he earned in excess of $100,000 and could easily have paid for the work to be done.
"It was petty bribery," Simon said. "It's amazing that someone would give up a career and be labeled a felon for a mere $5,000. If someone is willing to be labeled a felon for $5,000, what would they do for a $100,000 bribe?"
Ramirez's sentence includes one year of supervised release, with five months of that served as at-home detention wearing an electronic device. Ramirez must repay $4,108 to the School City of East Chicago in restitution, and $100 in court costs.
Asked after court if he thought his sentence would deter other would-be criminals in East Chicago, Ramirez said, "That's a loaded question. My hope is that they don't do it at all. It's not worth it."
Ramirez was convicted last year of exchanging a school contract with a local construction company in exchange for thousands of dollars in free home repairs, according to the plea agreement.
Geraldo "Jerry" Lozano, 34, of Hobart, also was indicted in the case.
Lozano, who owned Green Tree Builders, was charged with paying a bribe to an agent or local government receiving federal funds. Ramirez was charged with receiving that bribe.
Lozano was sentenced last month to 21 months in federal prison after pleading guilty to felony bribery of a public official.
In 2008, East Chicago schools received more than $10,000 in federal funding.
That same year, Ramirez hired Green Tree Builders to perform landscaping work at East Chicago Central High School. After the project, Ramirez and Lozano discussed additional work at the school as a trade-off for doing a slew of home improvements at Ramirez's home, court records state.