LIFESTYLE

Meet the no-nonsense judge who sentenced 'Real Housewives' stars Joe and Teresa Guidice

U.S. District Court Judge Esther Salas

U.S. District Court Judge Esther Salas  (rutgers.edu)

The judge who handed "Real Housewives of New Jersey" stars Joe and Teresa Guidice their jail sentences for mortgage and bankruptcy fraud last week also gave them a piece of her mind.

U.S. District Court Judge Esther Salas handed down a 15-month sentence to Teresa Guidice, who had tried to avoid doing any prison time by stressing her role as caregiver to her four children. And Salas sentenced Joe Guidice to 41 months, ordering them to pay $638,799 in restitution, fines and back taxes.

But what was perhaps just as memorable to observers was Salas scolding the couple, whom she basically called selfish, spoiled brats.

Salas, who is 45 and of Cuban and Mexican descent, has led a completely different life than that of the celebrity couple, according to the North Jersey-based Record, which described the judge as “a woman who used intelligence and decades of hard work to overcome poverty and early tragedy.”

When she was just 3 years old, Salas arrived in Union City, N.J., with her mother, a Cuban immigrant who fled an abusive husband, according to the paper.

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Salas grew up there with her single mother and four siblings. When a fire destroyed the family's few possessions, she was just 11 years old, but because her mother's English wasn't great, Salas becamethe family representative in meetings with government agencies as they sought public assistance and social services.

“When I look back, that was a pivotal moment for me,” Salas said in an interview with her alma mater, Rutgers University. “If you track what I’ve done over my career, you’ll see I tended to do a lot of public service. I learned that you need to be a voice for those who don’t have one.”

And so the woman who learned to overcome misfortune and earn things through hard work had no patience when Joe and Teresa Guidice stood before her.

“What you did in the financial disclosure really sticks in my craw,” Salas said to Teresa, pointing out that while she had not been convicted of crimes on the scale of those of her husband,she still had violated the law in serious ways. “It's what the court has a problem with. It shows blatant disrespect for the court.”

“It’s as if you thumb your nose at this court,” said Salas, who was the first Hispanic woman to sit on the federal bench in New Jersey. “I don’t honestly believe you understand and respect the law.”

The Guidices’ fraudulent actions involved faking tax returns and W-2 forms to receive millions in loans.

Salas told them that if they were to raise their children properly, they had to learn to be disciplined in their own lives first.

“If you don’t have it, you shouldn’t spend it,” she said. “In the eyes of the law it doesn’t matter who you are.”

Those who know Salas express admiration for her skills as well as what they describe as a rock-solid personal constitution.

“She works hard, and she is always incredibly well-prepared,” The Record quoted Chester Keller, of the federal public defender’s office in Newark, saying about her. “If you’re a lawyer appearing before her in court, you’d better be prepared, too. You don’t want the judge telling you about your own case.”

Another colleague, John Michael Vazquez, a former federal and state prosecutor, told the paper, “She’s like a living example of the American Dream. She’s certainly not someone who has been handed anything in life.”

Vazquez said the judge’s achievements had arisen from “pure force of will and determination.”

When Salas was confirmed U.S. District Court judge unanimously by the U.S. Senate in 2011, she told the New Jersey Star-Ledger, "I am humbled and honored by Pres. Obama and the Senate’s confidence in me. For this little girl from Union City to grow up and become a U.S. District Judge — it’s beyond words."

Theresa Guidice, for her part, says she was blind-sided by the sentence. "I was shocked," Guidice said in an interview with "Watch What Happens" that aired Monday.

She said she had been gullible, that she signed many documents without reading them or really knowing what they entailed.

It was an argument that she made tearfully in Salas’ courtroom, but the judge didn’t sympathize completely.

“You are a savvy businesswoman,” Salas said to Guidice. “You know how to brand yourself.”

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