A Sitka resident and charter operator has pleaded guilty to felony theft of electricity, and he’ll have to pay $150,000 in restitution and fines immediately, or face additional civil enforcement from the city.
59-year old Richard A. Forst pleaded guilty in Sitka Superior Court on January 31, 2022, to one count of criminal mischief in the 4th degree, a misdemeanor, and to one count of theft in the 2nd degree, a felony, for the theft of electric power at his home on Islander Drive, and at his dock property on Halibut Point Road – for at least the last seven years.
Forst was arrested and charged in 2019 after technicians with the Sitka Electric Department noticed that the locking seal had been removed from Forst’s electric meter, and replaced with another not supplied by the utility. A large motor was audible in Forst’s garage. The department subsequently pulled the meter and found that two bypass wires had been installed to divert power into the garage, without first going through the meter. The main circuit breaker was opened, and the motor inside the garage nevertheless continued running.
Technicians later observed that the meter at Forst’s commercial property at Guckers Island Dock on Halibut Point Road had been bypassed in a similar manner. Police were informed of the situation; they obtained a search warrant to investigate inside the buildings at the two properties and found that the bypassed circuits were feeding refrigeration equipment. Based on the age of the equipment and further investigation into Forst’s electrical consumption, the department estimated the value of electricity diverted over a period of years to be around $200,000.
Municipal attorney Brian Hanson appeared at Forst’s change of plea hearing to deliver a scathing victim impact statement, on behalf of all rate payers in the community.
“Sitka is not a cement building at the end of Lincoln Street,” Hanson told the court. “It is not a full of faceless bureaucrats. The City and Borough of Sitka is approximately 8,500 citizens: Men, women, and children who live, work, go to school, and recreate in this community. They also are electric ratepayers in this community. Some are in poverty, many are low income, and the citizens plead to our assembly to keep the rates of electricity as low as possible. Mr. Forst you stole from those citizens and you stole from them for years.”
Under the plea agreement, Forst must pay $144,925 in restitution to the City of Sitka, and fines of $5,200. In an email to city assembly members, Attorney Hanson wrote that “If Mr. Forst fails to immediately pay the judgement, I will initiate civil enforcement.”
Forst will also be on probation for two years, and subject to the the terms of the Court’s “Order to Probation on Suspended Entry of Judgement.” If he’s found to have successfully completed the terms of his probation by 2024, the charges will be dismissed. Otherwise, the judgement will stand and the felony conviction will be entered into Forst’s record.
Neither was Superior Court Judge Jude Pate conciliatory. He told Forst that, had he not accepted the plea agreement, he could have faced 1-3 years in prison for the original charge of theft in the first degree, and paid up to $100,000 in fines. The original charge of criminal mischief in the third degree carried potential jail time of up to two years, and a $50,000 fine.
Judge Pate agreed with the state prosecutor Amy Fenske that when a citizen of nominal good standing, a prosperous business owner, abuses the system so flagrantly, something more damaging than mere theft occurs.
“The bigger and possibly the more long term harm is, as Counsel Fenske pointed out, tearing at the social fabric,” said Pate. “And that’s just the lack of trust that these actions have brought about, at a time where our society is already at odds on so many things. And you pour in this this doubt, this mistrust by stealing. It causes citizens not to trust the government. It causes citizens not to trust each other. It erodes our very community on both a financial and sociological, psychological level.”
Judge Pate offered Forst the opportunity to address the matter in open court, but he declined.
“Mr. Forst, is there anything you’d like to tell me before I decide what to do?” Pate asked. “You’re not required to speak. But if you’d like to speak now be the time.”
“No, judge,” Forst replied.
Judge Pate went on to observe that if the COVID pandemic had not intervened, this case likely would have gone to trial. As a result, public reaction to date has been “somewhat muted.”
In his remarks, Forst’s attorney, Juneau-based August Petropulos, suggested that the entire question of Forst’s guilt would be moot if two as-yet-unread motions received favorable ruling from the court: the first to dismiss the original indictment, and the second to suppress the evidence in the case. Nevertheless, Petropulos said he wasn’t there to litigate, and urged the court to accept the plea deal.
“We’re taking this deal,” Petropulos said. “I think it’s a fair compromise, given the two motions that were filed. The fact that Mr. Forst has no prior convictions, and that this guarantees the city gets the $144,924. I’d ask the court accept it.”
In addition to the restitution and fines, Forst will serve two years of probation. He also agreed to perform 80 hours of community work service.
Note: This story was updated on February 5, 2022, to reflect that the Sitka Superior Court issued an “Order to Probation on Suspended Entry of Judgement,” which means that Forst’s felony conviction will not be entered unless he fails to successfully complete his two years’ probation.