03/21/2003 12:00AM

So ludicrous it's laughable

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NEW YORK - Anyone want to help me steal $3 million? All you have to do is open a couple of Capitol OTB phone accounts and I will take care of the rest. C'mon, it will be fun, and it's a sweet deal for me if we get caught: I will rat you out and only get 312 days in the pokey while you will get two to three years.

That's exactly the arrangement that Judge Charles L. Brieant came up with Thursday when he sentenced the three former fraternity brothers involved in the Fix Six of last Oct. 26. Brieant's topsy-turvy brand of justice was to shoot the messenger boys and spare the mastermind. He gave prison sentences of 37 months to Derrick Davis and 24 months to Glen DaSilva, the two recruits who phoned in the dummy tickets that were later altered into winners. Chris Harn, the Autotote employee who recruited them and singlehandedly devised and executed the scheme, got the lightest sentence: a year and a day, the day tacked on so Harn could benefit from a fairly automatic 54-day reduction for federal sentences of more than a year.

Harn had been expected to receive a sentence in the four- to six-year range, both for the magnitude of his crime and his relatively greater role. Instead, he was rewarded for cooperating with prosecutors and will be out in less than a year, perhaps in time to attend the premiere of the HBO movie being made about the case. It is unclear whether Davis and DaSilva will be incarcerated at a facility with premium cable.

No one ever claimed that crime was fair, and these sentences reflect what we have all been told for years on episodes of "Law and Order" - the criminal-justice system has become a floating crap game where sentences are bartered for convictions in a cynical version of "Let's Make a Deal." Under any standard of fairness, whether DaSilva and Davis deserved six months or six years, Harn deserved much more.

The prosecutorial mindset that trades away justice for higher conviction rates should come as no surprise. These are the same public servants who held up the distribution of the pick six pool to the rightful winners with an outrageous claim that the money was a seized and forfeited asset that now belonged to the government.

At least the winners are now going to be paid the extra $40,000 or so per ticket they earned that day, including accrued interest of $249.48. The NTRA, Breeders' Cup Ltd., and Churchill Downs Inc. commendably made the proper payouts their priority during the whole process, and this is a rare case where the victims of a crime got all their stolen property back.

If there is any additional consolation in the resolution of the case, it is that Autotote is as unhappy about Harn's sentence as any outraged horseplayer. Autotote, which has yet to express a word of regret for the system and security lapses that allowed this all to happen, seemed a longshot to top its own bad behavior when it initially pretended it had investigated the incident and found nothing amiss. However, the letter its attorneys sent to Judge Brieant on March 10, unsuccessfully seeking a harsh sentence for Harn, may have set a new standard.

Autotote, which clearly believes it has no responsibility for what happened, began its letter by congratulating itself for its own resiliency. "That Autotote has successfully overcome the crisis that resulted from Harn's criminal conduct is a great credit to the professionalism of Autotote's employees and in no way diminishes the egregious nature of Harn's disloyalty."

Perhaps most typical of Autotote's ongoing attitude is its complaint that "the company has now been faced with having to defend meritless class action lawsuits filed by horseplayers who have claimed that they have been cheated for years through similar conduct, even though the only basis for such claims is Harn's plea regarding identified isolated criminal acts."

Well, not really. Just because no one is investigating any payoffs before 2002 doesn't negate the fact that some racing officials believe similar schemes may well have happened before. Common sense suggests that Harn was not the first person to exploit a security loophole that existed for nearly two decades.

The letter addresses the clearly distasteful burden of addressing the public's concerns about integrity and the costly nuisance of improving its security.

"In order to restore bettor and track-owner confidence after Harn's criminal acts," the letter said, "Autotote was compelled to demonstrate the continuing integrity of its systems. Thus, Autotote was required to purchase a new software application at a cost of nearly $1 million, which though redundant in many respects to Autotote's existing system, provided further assurances to the public. Autotote also engaged the services of attorneys and a public relations company at a total cost of approximately $1 million."

That's quite a fee for a public-relations effort that has amounted to public silence following the initial coverup effort. The only press release emanating from Autotote on the day of the sentencing was an announcement that it is "upgrading its premier simulcasting facility, Sports Haven" with the help of "a professional designer from Sherwin Williams." One can only hope that the beleaguered victims at Autotote are getting a price break on the paint and the whitewash.