$1.7M Thief Plays the 'Cougar' Card to Lower Prison Sentence

ABC News

ABC News' Linsey Davis and Cameron Brock report:

A former New York City Department of Education consultant who has been convicted of stealing $1.7 million asked a judge for leniency because he fears for his daughter, if left with his ex-wife, a self-described "cougar."

Willard "Ross" Lanham's lawyer has basically asked the court to decide who is a better parent, a convicted embezzler or Laura Lanham, who was once featured on the website, TheHouseWivesNextDoor.com.

"A cougar is really an older woman, who is going out and meeting younger guys, and I tend to click with people younger," Laura Lanham said.

Ross Lanham, 58, was once a hot-shot consultant of the Department of Education and lived lavishly in a mansion with then-wife Laura, 15 years his junior. He even named their street after her, "Laura Lane." It all came crashing down in March when Lanham was convicted of stealing taxpayer money.

"I didn't think about it," Laura Lanham, 43, said. "It just seemed normal because I knew he was making money. I don't think anybody would sit there and say, 'Well, where is this money coming from?'"

Prosecutors say Ross Lanham siphoned $1.7 million from a fund to install high-speed Internet in classrooms and is now facing 20 years in prison. Lanham is asking for just four years, saying his 17-year-old daughter can't rely on his ex-wife, whom he calls "emotionally unstable."

"Ross can't take responsibility for his actions, so, 'Let me dig whatever I can dig up, and get a scapegoat,'" Laura Lanham said of her ex-husband. "I'm not sleeping with these kids, these are my friends. So, will I date eventually? Yes. If he's younger, great."

The "cougar" label is one Lanham readily claimed in a 2010 post on CougarLifeDiaries.com, a blog that chronicles the exploits of women older than 40 who use dating sites to meet younger men. In 2009, Lanham launched her own steamy website, TheHouseWivesNextDoor.com, to promote her pin-up calendar.

"We took great pictures," she said. "Were they sexy? Yes, they were. Were they raunchy? No, they were not.

"I didn't think it was that bad. Everybody else turned it into something it was not supposed to be."

Lanham says she shut the site down because of her daughter, but the Facebook account for "Housewives Next Door" is promoting a comeback.

Meanwhile, Ross Lanham won't learn his fate until next month and he plans to appeal his conviction. His ex-wife says she doesn't wish prison for him, but that "cougar" or not, her life is now none of his business.

"Let this go, let us go, and deal with your own life and stop messing up ours," Laura Lanham said.

Ross Lanham's attorney told ABC News by phone that he and his client have no comment but, "If you Google her name, you get an idea of her lifestyle. You get a sense of that, and I'll let that speak for itself."

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