Bookkeeper Who Stole Almost $2 Million From Art Dealer Frank Fowler Gets 41 Months In Federal Prison

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

A woman who stole almost $2 million from well-known Lookout Mountain art dealer Frank E. Fowler was sentenced on Tuesday to serve 41 months in federal prison.

Judge Sandy Mattice also ordered Francine Labbe to repay Mr. Fowler $1,454,686.27 and to pay CNA Financial $25,000 and Chubb Insurance $37,500. The judge said he was not optimistic that much of the amount would be paid back.

Mr. Fowler got some items back that Ms. Labbe purchased with the several hundred thousand dollars per month she was draining from his bank account, but he said he could not get full value. He said he retrieved jewelry she had bought for $300,000. Mr. Fowler said he shopped the jewels with three local jewelers and one in Cleveland, Tn., and was only offered about 10 cents on the dollar. He said he finally gave them to Stan Carnahan at Chattanooga Auction Company to try to sell.

Mr. Fowler, who appeared as a witness at the sentencing, also said that Ms. Labbe bought five autos within four months. He said, "She was giving testimonials for the local Ford dealership. She was one of their best customers."

Other returned items included $3,500 sweaters and $4,000 pocketbooks.

Mr. Fowler said, "I didn't want any of it back. It was tainted. I didn't want to see it."

The art dealer, who convinced famed artist Andrew Wyeth to let him handle his paintings, said Ms. Labbe began working for him in his office on Lookout Mountain in 2009. He said his former accountant had retired and Ms. Labbe had a good recommendation.

He said she handled numerous duties for him, saying, "I needed to deal with the business side - the selling of paintings."

Mr. Fowler said he discovered in 2011 that Ms. Labbe had stolen $40,000 from him. But he said he decided to give her another chance, saying she often told him about the difficulties in her life, including an alleged abusive husband. 

Looking back he said the $40,000 theft "was like the mini plan. Then she came up with the big plan."

He said he had an agreement drawn up by his attorney, Nelson Irvine, in which Ms. Labbe agreed to have $600 per month withdrawn from her pay check to go toward restitution. But, at the same time, he said he gave her a raise.

Mr. Fowler said, "I was sympathetic toward her. I did not turn her into police."

He said for a number of years they worked in side by side offices. However, he said he was at his home at Beaufort, S.C., in 2016 when his wife was stricken with a very rare disorder. He said she had a long recuperation, then later she was in Savannah and fell and shattered her hip. During his wife's difficulties, he said he took on many new duties, including "getting the groceries and taking care of the dogs."

Also, he said he was often away in distant cities. He said, "I traveled a lot going to visit clients."

The 47-year art dealer said he was back on Lookout Mountain in April 2017 at a time when Ms. Labbe was not there and he was looking for a deposit to pay a vendor with a $39,000 check. He said he noticed that Ms. Labbe had written several checks that added up to the $39,000. He said the checks were signed with a stamp of his signature that he thought had been locked up in an office safe. He said the checks were made out to Francine Labbe.

The witness said he made the discovery at 4 o'clock in the afternoon and he stayed up until 4 a.m. - with attorney Irvine frequently on the phone with him - finding similar checks. He found 256 in all.

He said he also discovered that Ms. Labbe had been neglecting some of her duties with some important mail never having been opened going back as long as six years.

Mr. Fowler said Ms. Labbe had been renting a house on Fairy Trail on the Tennessee side. He said the next time he saw her he did not tell her about his discovery, but he told her, "I'm watching you." He said when an attempt was made to serve her with papers it was found that she had moved to the Chanticleer Lodge on the Georgia side of the mountain.

The witness said, "I let her off the hook the first time. When I found out that she was stealing again, it hurt. I tell you it hurt."

He added, "She's never apologized. She's never taken any blame to my knowledge." 

A psychiatrist who recently interviewed Ms. Labbe for two hours and reviewed a note from her doctor said she had spiraled into becoming dependent on drugs like xanex and valium. He said the situation was exacerbated by her husband at time withdrawing the medications from her so that she would go on and off them.  

The psychiatrist said he had been paid $12,000 by the defense and would be due more for his courtroom testimony. He was asked who paid him by prosecutor Steve Neff. Attorney Garth Best said, "We were paid by her mother." Mr. Fowler said Ms. Labbe had told her that her mother was dependent on Social Security. 

It was testified that she got treatment at The Ranch and is no longer hooked on pills. She weighed 98 pounds when she entered rehab, it was stated. 

Ms. Labbe read an emotional statement in which she said she was deeply ashamed. She said, "I am sick with tremendous guilt and regret for what I've done. It weighs heavy on me and causes me great torment every day."

She said, "I will spend the rest of my life trying to make amends to all that I have harmed. I will make every effort to make Mr. Fowler and his family whole to the best of my ability."

Among those in the courtroom were two of her three children.

Mr. Fowler said in addition to his embezzlement loss of $1,965,000, he has had to pay out some half a million dollars to accountants, lawyers and others to try to straighten out the mess. He said he had to pay a $40,000 penalty to the IRS for papers Ms. Labbe neglected to file.  

Ms. Labbe is to self report to prison on Jan. 8.

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