Crime

This Stennis worker was 'dying' to see his kids. So he stole from the government.

As he sat in federal court, former attorney Matthew Wathen said he knew he would get caught when he started stealing.

"It was an irrational decision," he said Thursday. "It was an emotional decision. I was dying. I just wanted to see my kids."

The first time he stole, Wathen said, he had been working for about a year as a contract specialist at the U.S. Geological Survey at Stennis Space Center in Hancock County. The divorced father was tapped out financially, so he used his work travel card to visit his four children in Savannah, Georgia.

And then he did it again. And again. From late November 2015 until early October 2016, Wathen charged $29,092 in personal expenses to the card for gas, hotels, dinners, at least one cash withdrawal for groceries and rental cars.

And when he inevitably got caught, he admitted it.

But one has to go back to understand how life came to this for Wathen.

The 49-year-old, who grew up in Pontiac, Michigan, holds two advance degrees: a master's in business and a law degree, both from Case Western Reserve University. He worked and took out student loans to pay for those degrees. His youngest child and only son was born during his second year of law school.

As an attorney, he worked seven days a week. He and his wife grew apart and divorced after 11 years of marriage. They shared custody of the children.

He was trying to work as a father and be a full-time dad to the kids during the alternating weeks he had custody. Things began to fall apart. Wathen had a mental breakdown of sorts and lost his career.

He moved to Washington state for a full-time job with benefits as a contract specialist. He used those benefits and learned that he was suffering from depression and anxiety. He regularly visited a therapist.

The bad part about Washington was the distance from his children. He saw them maybe once a year for three years.

Then he moved to Mississippi. He wasn't in therapy as regularly. The children became his anti-depressant. Being with them felt so good. They went to movies and, when it was sunny, to the beach.

"I didn't have any money," he said. "I didn't want to disappear on them. I was so afraid of disappointing them. When you're away from your kids like that, the world is gray."

When his turn came in court, Wathen stood to face U.S. District Judge Louis Guirola Jr. As he always does, Guirola went through the ramifications of a guilty plea with Wathen, who then said he was, in fact, guilty of embezzlement. Guirola will sentence Wathen at 10 a.m. Aug. 30.

From the beginning, he cooperated with investigators. He said Assistant U.S. Attorney Shundral Cole and other Justice Department staff, and his own attorney, public defender Ellen Allred, have been exceptionally professional in handling the case.

He could be sent to prison for up to 10 years, but the U.S. Attorney's Office has recommended a lower sentence within the guideline range because of his cooperation and plea.

Outside the courtroom, he said he felt shame. There he was, a former lawyer, standing before a judge for a crime rather than beside a criminal.

"It's hard," he said, "to stand up there and realize everything I threw away by my behavior and the things I did."

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