(Adds comment from Grant Thornton, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara)
By Nate Raymond
NEW YORK, March 12 (Reuters) - A former partner at Grant Thornton was sentenced to 4-1/2 years in prison on Wednesday for stealing nearly $4 million from the accounting firm.
Craig Haber, 60, had pleaded guilty in August to a charge of mail fraud stemming from what prosecutors say was an eight-year scheme to divert client payments to a personal bank account.
His lawyer, Michael Bachner, sought leniency and had asked for a non-prison sentence, citing Haber's lack of a prior criminal history and his need to supervise his autistic son.
But U.S. District Judge Kevin Castel in Manhattan said such a sentence would send the wrong message, saying punishment was needed in a case characterized by Haber's "greed."
He noted that Haber's scheme ran from 2004 to 2012, a period when Haber was a partner in Grant Thornton's New York office handling tax matters and earning a total of nearly $6.9 million.
"That, apparently, was not enough," Castel said.
The judge also ordered Haber to forfeit $3.97 million but said he would wait for further briefing before ordering restitution, which could go as high as $4.31 million.
Haber, who had been a partner at Grant Thornton from 1993 to 2012, was arrested in February 2013 on charges he stole nearly $4 million in client payments from the firm.
Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in a statement said Haber "abused his position as partner of an accounting firm, stealing millions of dollars in client payments to fund his own personal expenses, including the mortgage on his Manhattan apartment."
At his plea hearing in August, Haber admitted to telling clients to send checks directly to his office rather than the normal processing channel. Haber said he then deposited the checks into an account he controlled.
Throughout this period, prosecutors say, Haber spent millions of dollars on expenses, including a luxury apartment, travel and restaurants.
"I just want to tell the court I'm extremely remorseful for my actions," Haber said at his sentencing on Wednesday.
Grant Thornton fired Haber in July 2012 after his conduct was discovered, according to court documents. Michele Mazur, a spokeswoman for Grant Thornton, said in a statement the firm "appreciates the authorities' swift actions in this matter."
The case is U.S. v. Haber, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, 13-cr-434. (Reporting by Nate Raymond; Editing by Leslie Adler and Tom Brown)