WORCESTER - A former laundromat owner convicted in September of tampering with gas meters and stealing what prosecutors said was more than $200,000 worth of natural gas has been ordered by a judge to pay $195,241 in restitution at a rate of $1,000 a month.
Steven R. Bankert, 60, of North Attleboro, was found guilty Sept. 20 by a Worcester Superior Court jury on 10 counts of willful injury to or interference with a gas meter or other property and six counts of larceny of more than $250. Mr. Bankert, who once owned laundromats in Worcester, Attleboro, Brockton and Lawrence, was accused by prosecutors from the attorney general's office of tampering with gas meters at the businesses and stealing about $205,000 in natural gas from Columbia Gas and about $9,000 worth of gas from NStar from 2008 to 2012.
A onetime licensed electrician, Mr. Bankert was alleged to have tampered with 10 gas meters at six of his laundromats, including two in Worcester that were at 286 Pleasant St. and 46 Mill St.
Judge Richard T. Tucker, who presided over the trial, sentenced Mr. Bankert the following month to 1 year in the House of Correction, with 4 years of probation to begin upon his release. Over the objections of prosecutors, Judge Tucker stayed the execution of Mr. Bankert's jail sentence pending an appeal of the convictions and placed him under house arrest with GPS monitoring and with windows only for employment and medical, legal and religious reasons.
The judge also scheduled a restitution hearing in the case. After a series of related hearings held in Lawrence Superior Court, where Judge Tucker has been assigned, he set the total loss suffered by the gas companies as a result of Mr. Banokert's theft of gas at $195,241, according to court records. The last of the hearings focused on Mr. Bankert's ability to pay.
In a five-page ruling issued Friday, Judge Tucker ordered Mr. Bankert to pay $1,000 monthly in restitution to the attorney general's office, but stayed the restitution order pending Mr. Bankert's current appeal or during any periods when he is incarcerated.
The judge found that Mr. Bankert was able to sell one of his laundromats for $190,000, with $140,000 in cash being paid upfront and the balance to be paid in monthly installments of $829. Mr. Bankert used the $140,000 to pay off existing debts and the money is no longer available, according to the judge's findings. The remaining businesses were seized by lien holders in payment or partial payment of amounts due, according to the ruling.
Mr. Bankert and his wife run a seasonal "mini golf and ice cream store" in Norton from April 15 to about Nov. 1 that generates an average net income of about $3,750 a month, Judge Tucker found. He has also started a "secret shopper" business, according to the judge.
"As explained, he auditions for jobs and if selected, he will then go to the business' premises and eat a meal if it's a restaurant, purchase items at retail stores or seek assistance or information from service oriented operations etc., and then report back to the officers of the business with his findings as to how well he was treated, whether the food was cooked properly, the degree of service he received etc." Judge Tucker wrote. He said he credited Mr. Bankert's testimony that he averages about $500 net for such assignments.
Another source of income for Mr. Bankert that accounts for no more than $100 a month is the rental of a parking area he controls for "overflow parking" for events at the Xfinity Center in Mansfield, according to the judge.
Mr. Bankert is the joint title owner with his wife of property at 42 Platt Lane in North Attleboro, but the mortgage loan on the premises is extremely "under water," according to the judge. Mr. Bankert owes $1.3 million on the loan, has not made payments since 2013 and is more than $400,000 in arrears, the judge found.
"It appears that the premises have not been foreclosed upon due to the fact that the sale of the property is likely to result in a substantial shortfall," Judge Tucker wrote.
He found that Mr. Bankert has "a little over $5,000 at his disposal to pay his monthly household and human needs" and owns no "saleable assets." The judge further found that Mr. Bankert could be gainfully employed, at least on a part-time basis, during the months in which the mini golf and ice cream stand is not in operation.
"Accordingly, I find that the amount that he can pay as restitution to be $1,000 per month," the judge said in his ruling.