It wasn’t fraud on a billion-dollar, Bernie Madoff scale, but it still was fraud. And Trina Lee Kenney got caught.

When complaints about Kenney’s business practices started surfacing from irate horse buyers all across the United States and in Canada, the Feds started investigating. An FBI agent and a United States Postal Inspector acting undercover contacted Kenney about buying "Azure," a Friesian mare. According to the Department of Justice, the agents paid Kenney $5,000 for Azure, but Kenney never delivered the mare. She couldn’t, because Azure existed only in Kenney’s fertile imagination. Not surprisingly, Kenney then failed to respond to inquiries from the agents about the whereabouts of their new horse.

Kenney entered a guilty plea to one count of mail fraud last year, and on April 13 she was sentenced by United States District Judge A. Howard Matz to 41 months in federal prison. She also was ordered to pay restitution totaling $272,609.50 to 88 people.

People who cheat other people should be punished, no doubt about that. But a federal mail fraud conviction for concocting shady horse deals?

Mail fraud sounds like an anachronism these days, a throwback to another era long past when the postal service actually was used for something other than pre-approved credit card offers and supermarket advertisements. And, come to think of it, whatever happened to that Captain Marvel Decoder Ring I ordered 50 years ago?

It turns out that the federal mail fraud statutes are alive and well, even in the Internet age. The law does not attempt to deal with all fraud, which usually is covered only by state law, but in appropriate cases (like Kenney’s) a federal prosecution can result in more severe penalties. The elements of mail fraud are simple: the accused must have "devised or intended to devise a scheme to defraud" and then must have used the United States mail "for the purpose of executing, or attempting to execute, the scheme." According to the Criminal Resource Manual for United States Attorneys, a mail fraud conviction turns on the nature of the scheme to defraud, not whether there actually was fraud.  In Kenney's case, the fraud was blatant. The use of mail is a necessary component of the offense, but the extent of the mailings can be small.

Kenney’s scheme to defraud involved advertising horses (real and non-existent) on several different Internet sites, including dreamhorse.com, equine.com, and horsetopia.com. She operated under different aliases, including Prestige Distribution, Horses and Ponies, and Star Horses. She reportedly made false claims about the horses she advertised, including claims that the horses had certain physical or temperamental characteristics, that they were safe for children, that they were registered with breed associations, and that there was a money-back guarantee.

The ads enticed potential buyers to send money, but Kenney either failed to deliver a horse (as in Azure’s "sale"), or failed to refund the purchase price to disgruntled buyers, or delivered a different horse than the one advertised. When she entered her guilty plea, Kenney admitted that at various times she drugged horses to make then seem calm and colored brown horses black to match ads.

Referring to the victims of Kenney’s schemes, Judge Matz commented that she "broke their hearts and stole their money." He also cited the large number of buyers involved and Kenney’s indifference to the victims.

Judge Matz could have mentioned Kenney’s indifference to the horses. According to the Department of Justice, Kenney also admitted that "horses she delivered were starved, were covered in sores and cuts, had hooves that had been untrimmed so the horses were unable to walk, or were suffering from strangles, a severely contagious equine respiratory disease." Although the mail fraud statutes are not animal welfare laws, prosecutors argued that Kenney’s fraud involved "significant cruelty to helpless and often distressed animals" that were dependent on her care.

The maximum sentence for this type of mail fraud is 20 years in federal prison, which makes Kenney’s 41-month sentence look like a pretty good deal.

Was her punishment fair?