Ex-trustee draws 90 days in jail, 12 years of probation

Date: 2009-02-07

Daily Times-Call, The (Longmont, CO)
Scott Rochat

A judge sentenced former Erie Trustee Lisa Novak to 90 days in jail and 12 years of probation Friday, Feb. 6, and barred her from working in the adoption field.

Novak, 48, was convicted in December of stealing from clients of the Claar Foundation, an international adoption agency she operated with her husband, Martin Claar. A jury found her guilty of three counts of theft and one count of fraud by check. The total amount, according to prosecutors, comes to about $77,000.

Boulder District Judge Maria Berkenkotter said Novak also must repay her victims and perform 100 hours of community service. The judge denied a request to postpone the sentence until after an appeal is resolved.

"I do have concerns ... that this is not a case of simple poor decision-making," Berkenkotter told Novak at the sentencing. "Some of your statements suggest that you may not understand the impact of your conduct. ... What was stolen in this case went beyond money. You stole families' trust and, in some cases, their ability to adopt a child."

Prosecutors accused Novak of taking payments from clients and then failing to arrange for the adoptions. Her defense attorney, Lance Goff, said at the trial that international adoptions are risky and that payment never guarantees success.

Testimony for and against Novak at Friday's sentencing frequently grew emotional. Her 19-year-old daughter, Alexandra Speers, begged the judge to grant clemency, saying Novak's two adopted daughters from Russia were still too fragile to have their mother gone for so long.

"The mother I knew is nothing like the portrait created in the newspapers," Speers said. "My mother taught us a morality and spirituality that is completely inconsistent with the way she was portrayed in this courtroom."

Claar described how Novak ran herself to exhaustion for the foundation and its clients, particularly as the agency began to fall apart financially and staff dwindled. He and Speers noted that during that trying last year, Novak also developed celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder of the small intestine.

"Looking back, I see the clients and I expected too much of her," Claar said. "For that, I blame myself. I should have said, 'Enough,' insisted we let the last cases go and closed the agency down. I should have protected my family during this time.

"But had I done this," Claar added, "there are 26 children (who were adopted) that would now be dying."

One of the foundation's former clients, the Singh family, insisted that Novak go to jail. The Singhs said they spent thousands to adopt a boy from Nicaragua, only to have to finalize everything themselves after months of delay, and that an attempt to adopt a 3-year-old Nicaraguan girl, Miriam, failed altogether.

"She can make you think you're the one who's crazy, patting you on the back with one hand while reaching into your pocket with the other," Linda Carlson-Singh said in court.

"A serious crime such as this requires serious consequences," said her husband, Jaspal Singh.

Novak told the judge that she regretted showing the Singhs a picture of Miriam before she had confirmation that the child could be adopted. That confirmation never came.

"I did not seek to hurt them," Novak said.

"In my professional life," she said, her voice starting to grow thick with emotion, "I have seen tens of thousands of children. All of them were in the most difficult circumstances."

She paused, with tears coming. "Every one of them deserves to be loved by a family."

Another pause.

"The reality is," she said quietly, "they cannot all be saved."

Novak said she had a number of other regrets: trying to rush in one more adoption from Guatemala before the country stopped taking requests, and accepting one family as clients even though they were still mourning a dying son. But she insisted that, although she had made mistakes, she had committed no crimes.

"I now regret many of the choices I have made," Novak said. "But ... I still believe the choices I made were not criminal in intent."

One client, Tiffany Howell, also testified on Novak's behalf. Howell said her own adoption of two children from Russia was handled efficiently and well, with Novak at one point arranging paperwork in two days that would have normally required four weeks and a second visit abroad.

Prosecutor Michael Foote, meanwhile, said Novak offered a number of excuses but took no responsibility.

"If Ms. Novak would have walked into a bank and passed a note to the teller saying 'Give me $77,000 or else,' I don't think we'd even be considering whether or not she goes to jail," Foote said. "Ms. Novak is a thief. And she needs to be treated like other thieves."

Before passing judgment, Berkenkotter acknowledged that sentencing in this case was difficult.


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