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Darlene Perrotta, a former owner of Forever In Time photography, listens to arguments in Rockingham County Superior Court on Wednesday. She is fighting to lower court-ordered restitution of $429,000 to her former customers. (JAMES A. KIMBLE PHOTO)

Ex-wedding photographer pictures lower restitution

BRENTWOOD - A former Salem wedding photographer claims she owes thousands of dollars less in restitution than the court ordered her to pay to former customers who waited years to receive photos of their wedding day.

Darlene Perrotta, 54, a former owner of Forever In Time photography, was in court on Wednesday arguing that she owed roughly $137,375 to former customers - not the $436,788 set by state prosecutors last October.

Perrotta, who is now being represented by a public defender, hired a certified public accountant to tabulate the cost owed to 200 former customers based on the types of photography packages and services customers paid for.

She and her former husband, Michael, ran the photography business, which closed after a fire in December 2008. Customers complained to the state Attorney General's Office Consumer Protection Bureau that they tried to contact the Perrottas for months before the business's closing, but could never get the photographs and video they paid for.

The couple pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of deceptive business practices in February 2011 and later settled a civil suit brought by state prosecutors.

An agreement struck with the state led to hundreds of customers getting DVD copies of their photographs - months after the Perrottas initially claimed that their photo archive was consumed by the 2008 fire.

Michael Perrotta has since settled his portion of restitution with the state.

Senior Assistant Attorney General Constance Stratton said on Wednesday that the state's estimate for restitution was not an exact number, but questioned some of the assumptions made by Perrotta while calculating a final dollar figure to be doled out to customers.

Stratton asked Judge Marguerite Wageling to add another 25 percent to Perrotta's total to compensate couples who went without their photo albums for years.

"When you get photographs five years after the fact, they're not worth as much," Stratton said. "There's a value to having your wedding photos after your wedding."

One couple received their photos only after they were divorced, Stratton said, making the photos virtually worthless.

Wageling, who inherited the case from another judge last year, asked a variety of questions to both parties during the two-hour hearing. She expressed doubt about whether she could legally add on a percentage to the restitution figure as some kind of penalty.

"It's not that I don't want to do it," Wageling said. "I can only do what the law allows me to do."

Public defender Deb Dupont argued the some complaints fielded by the state Attorney General's Office were simply too old, and that some customers attempted to reap a payment because they were unhappy with their photos.

Stratton said 55 customers who filed complaints with the state do not have their contracts or paperwork from the business, but should be allowed to testify at a future hearing about what they ordered from the business.

At the close of the hearing, Wageling encouraged both sides to communicate more about resolving the difference in estimates. She planned to meet with them in roughly a month to check on their progress before issuing a final order.

Wageling said that once she issues her final order, it's unlikely the restitution issue will be revisited again.

"There has to be a final number," she said. "Even if more information becomes available, I will be hard-pressed to change it. There has to be a point of no return."

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