Thursday, November 13, 2008

Bill Weimar Takes His Medicine Like a Man--But Would You Want to Be that Man?

Anchorage—

Retired private prisons magnate Bill Weimar was sentenced to six months in prison and six months of home confinement at a subdued proceeding yesterday in which vanilla-coating and contrition were the orders of the day.

Weimar’s journey to the defendant’s seat in federal criminal court was long and strange:

· Civil rights activist in the 1960s
· Firebrand leader of the “Ad Hoc” insurgents who tried to take over the Alaska Democratic Party in 1972
· Repeat political candidate
· Owner of a Last Frontier corrections empire
· Retiree in Montana since 1999

And starting in January: Prisoner.

The Setting: It’s Lonely for this Defendant

The mood was somber and restrained. Right from the get-go, there was a reminder that white-collar cases look more like big-dollar civil cases than the regular run of criminal proceedings. All the people at the counsel tables—including the defendant—wore dark business suits, and all the lawyers and the accused shook hands with each other before the judge came in.

These courteous expressions took place in a courtroom that was desolate by the standards of the Alaska public corruption cases. There were only about a dozen people in the room just before the sentencing started, and even with the late arrivals there were never more two dozen. It was a far cry from the throngs of reporters and paparazzi that followed the Ted Stevens trial in Washington, and a smaller turnout than appeared at other sentencings in the Alaska public corruption cases.

What was particularly surprising about the few people in the courtroom for Weimar’s sentencing, however, was that except for the defendant and his attorney it appeared that everyone there was either a federal employee or a member of the media. Even though Weimar lived in Alaska for 30 years before moving to Montana in 1999, not one friend or family member appeared to have come to support him as he faced prison. And the only letter in the file about the sentencing is from the administrator of a Montana domestic violence abuse prevention program who says that Weimar’s free work would be welcome community service.

The Facts of the Case

Weimar’s case is different from several of the other Alaska public corruption cases, as his Seattle-based attorney David Bukey took pains to point out. There were no wads of cash handed to legislators, and the government does not allege any long-running schemes to funnel money or gifts to an office-holder.

Instead, Weimar used telephone calls and the mails back in 2004 to arrange to pay $20,000 of an Alaska legislative candidate’s campaign costs. His concealment of that payment involved going to post offices in three Montana towns in two days to mail that money to a campaign consultant in three separate packages of less than $10,000 apiece. One of those packages carried a $3,000 check, and each of the other two packages contained $8,500 in cash. (Note to big cash handlers: Banks have to report to the IRS cash transactions of $10,000 or more, and it’s illegal to break up a transaction into parts of less than that amount to avoid this limit.)

Federal prosecutors call that conduct “Conspiracy to Commit Honest Services Mail and Wire Fraud” and “Structuring Financial Transactions,” and both those things are felonies.

The proceeding was fairly dull because the feds had Weimar dead to rights. The Department of Justice had the bank records, and also had the 68-year-old on tape in phone calls with the candidate and the consultant. With the evidence staring him in the face, Weimar pleaded guilty and sat down for a thorough debriefing with the FBI to tell what he knew about other potential crimes.

With no dispute over the facts or the intent, all that was left was characterizations of the defendant’s past life and the seriousness of this conduct.

The defense lawyer did a solid job of presenting Weimar’s view of his personal history and his offenses. Setting aside a case arising out of his 1960s civil rights activism, Bukey said his client had led a “crime-free life” until these offenses. Weimar was a “good man” and an “optimistic man” who through a “regrettable, sad, ironic” turn of events made a “series of very poor judgments” in 2004 that put him in court now.

The major disagreement the defense had with the prosecution was why Weimar did it. The defense—particularly the defendant—saw the case as a man who went wrong out of a misguided effort to help an old friend of more than 30 years who had limited means to fund a campaign. As Weimar told the court in his allocution, his friendship with that candidate was so long and strong that he had spent Christmas and Thanksgiving holidays with the candidate’s family.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Joe Bottini viewed the defendant’s motivations a little differently. Although by 2004 Weimar had basically retired from the private prisons industry after selling five Alaska halfway houses and moving to Montana, he still had a dog in the hunt in the construction of a private prison in the 49th State. If the company to which Weimar had sold out got a contact for that prison, Weimar would receive approximately $5.5 million. (That amount was a pittance compared to the value of the contract, pegged at $1 billion for 25 years in an article by Tom Kizzia in the Anchorage Daily News.)

Construction of the private prison required approval by the Alaska Legislature. During his previous service in the legislature, the candidate secretly funded by Weimar had always supported efforts to privatize prisons. Given that history and the big financial incentive for Weimar, his actions in paying a $20,000 campaign debt for that candidate were merely an attempt to buy influence with a politician, Bottini said.

As Bottini stated in the government’s sentencing memorandum, "Weimar's conduct here was serious—he took deliberate action to illegally fund a State Senate candidate's campaign with the full expectation that this was going to pay off for him in the future once the candidate was elected."

Bottini also disputed the significance of Weimar’s thorough debriefing with the FBI of the details of his relationships with politicians after the feds confronted him his criminal conduct.

While the prosecutor said that he personally found that history “fascinating,” Bottini contended that the defendant should not receive a reduced sentence for his cooperation because it had not increased the government’s knowledge of other crimes. “The bottom line was that it didn’t advance the ball one inch for the government.”

Weimar Takes Personal Responsibility

After Bottini spoke, Weimar got his chance to speak directly to the judge. He spoke without notes, although his voice faltered on occasion.

Weimar stressed that “This was my fault….This was me and me alone.” Particularly given his background in operating prisons, “I should have known better.” (Unlike his attorney’s sentencing memorandum, Weimar did not mention his law degree, which would have underscored even more the opportunities he had to learn about how to avoid committing crimes.)

While running halfway houses and drug rehabilitation programs, he helped set up behavior modification sessions, which often focused on criminal thinking errors. Weimar said “This was a criminal thinking error.”

The Judge Imposes Sentence

U.S. District Court Judge John Sedwick bought Weimar’s version of his own life. “This is obviously a sad day for Mr. Wiemar, but it’s also a sad day for everyone in the courtroom,” the judge said.

Given the defendant’s hard work, success, and contributions to the community, the judge considered it “basically astonishing” that he had committed these crimes.

“Really, this offense is the only thing that I can see in the record that would be of concern to anybody in a negative way,” the judge said. “Mr. Weimar is somebody who appeared by all accounts to be a very honest and upright hardworking individual who made an effort as best he could to assist others—people who ended up in situations he’s in now.”

On the other hand, Weimar’s crimes were serious, particularly his concealment of the $20,000 campaign contribution. "It was the kind of offense that does great damage to our community because...it allows for the corruption of a public process that we all really depend upon," Judge Sedwick said.

Balancing his view of Weimar’s laudable past life and the seriousness of the offenses, the judge gave him a sentence closer to what the defense requested than what the prosecution asked for.

Judge Sedwick handed down a sentence of six months in prison followed by six months of home confinement. During that period of confinement at his Montana home, Weimar can leave for a few limited purposes, including volunteering at a domestic violence program aimed at rehabilitating offenders.

The court added a $75,000 fine to the sentence. The entire presentence report was sealed, but the judge observed that it showed that Weimar had a "substantial annual income and net worth." Noting that the crime was motivated by money, Judge Sedwick said that a significant fine was needed to deter “well-heeled” and “successful” people from similar conduct.

Lessons from this Sentencing

The entire proceeding was significant on a number of levels in what it revealed about the ongoing corruption probes in the 49th State and what it didn’t reveal about Bill Weimar.

The deliberate pace of the investigations of the Alaska public corruption scandals was again on display, as Weimar will go to prison for crimes he committed more than four years before. The federal criminal investigations into the 49th State’s public corruption started when Barack Obama was a state legislator, and it is likely to be well into his Presidency when the feds close up shop on those cases.

Others in the feds’ crosshairs are the persons referenced as Consultant A and Candidate A in the Weimar case’s charging documents. Although still not officially identified, the consultant appears to be a Seattle-based campaign specialist. Various media accounts have fingered former Sen. Jerry Ward, an Anchorage Republican, as the legislative candidate who received Weimar’s illegal help in 2004. (Weimar’s illegal help was unsuccessful, as Ward lost that race.)

Neither Ward nor the Seattle-based campaign consultant has been charged. Ironically, the tangled connections that Ward has with Bill Allen and VECO—another partner in the push for private prisons in Alaska—may have complicated the investigation and slowed down any charging decisions the feds may make about the former legislator.

The big private prison sought by Weimar, VECO, and others never came to Alaska, and the proposal is now dead. Those years of efforts did bring at least one prescient comment by then-Rep. Eric Croft, D.-Anchorage, at a 2004 legislative hearing. After complaining about repeatedly seeing “sole-source, pre-arranged, heavy-money deals that go to specific contractors,” Croft predicted that "We are going to see somebody indicted and probably imprisoned over this series of proposals."

But the most unusual aspect about Weimar’s sentencing was the way it only scratched the surface of a person whose life trajectory has been stranger than that of anybody else in the Alaska public corruption scandals.

Bill Weimar’s 68 years on this planet have been much racier and richer than the depiction offered by his defense attorney. The gap between the man described in court and the man known by numerous Alaskans was substantially greater than in most criminal sentencings. As is common in letters of recommendation, singles ads, and obituaries, some of the juiciest parts of his life were left out at this proceeding.

Long-time Weimar subordinate Philip Munger expressed a particularly dark view on his blog in August when the feds announced the charges against his former boss:

If I were Bill, I'd hire a first-rate bodyguard very, very soon. Bill may be one
of the dirtiest operators in Alaska history. What he's been charged with today
by the U.S. Department of Justice isn't the tip of the iceberg. It is the tip of the
tip of the iceberg.

Weimar's past creative manipulation of funds touches both major political parties
in Alaska.

Deeply.

Munger’s suggestion that Weimar’s knowledge of dirty deeds committed by others as well as himself puts him at risk seems overblown given the prosecution’s statement at Weimar’s sentencing that he hadn’t given the feds anything that the government didn’t know already.

You don’t have to go as far as Munger, however, to know that the sentencing was a very sketchy portrait of an intriguing and troubling figure.

Intelligent and calculating, this 6’4’’, 250-pound force of nature was a chameleon across the decades. Most people could not imagine going from civil rights activist, antiwar organizer, and insurgent Democratic Party powerbroker to a multimillionaire operator of private prisons and a drug-testing laboratory. Weimar’s vision and narrow dedication to himself, however, helped make him successful in several endeavors.

His voice stayed deep and husky and his manner remained intense even as his jetblack hair turned whitish gray, but the shifts in his lines of work and in his political associates were much more significant than any change in his appearance.

Weimar’s inability to get elected to the legislature despite repeated tries showed the limitations of most backroom operatives: The kind of strategist who can get others elected often lacks the kind of one-on-one personal appeal to voters that can make himself successful at the polls.

Like many others, Weimar turned from the pursuit of political power to the pursuit of wealth in the 1980s, and he got rich. It wasn’t just his entrepreneurial instincts and hard work that made the money for him, though—it was also the transactional nature of his personal relationships (his ties to Ward appear to be an example).

Near the end of his seventh decade, however, this approach seems to have netted him a lot more money than friends.

If you were 68 years old and going to court to face being sent to prison for a number of months, what would you want more: a big house on a big spread on a Montana lake and your own yacht, or even one person who would show up at your felony sentencing because they cared about you?

8 comments:

Betsy said...

Cliff, I promise I'd show up for your sentencing. I'd bring a whole group. Love, Your Little Sister

Trailfollwer said...

Nicely done, Cliff. My vague recollection of Weimar from back in the "ad hoc" days was more of a hanger on than a leader, though. You are certainly right (or Mr. Munger is certainly right) that it is merely the tip of the tip of the iceberg.

brightandbeautiful said...

I've known Bill Weimar since the early 90's and have a great deal of respect for him. He is one of the kindest and most intelligent men I know. If I had to pick a fault, it would be that he is a big picture guy and sometimes loses sight of the trees for the forest.

Bill and I spoke just days before his sentencing. He knew that he had my support and that I would have hopped on a plane if he were not such a private individual. He was prepared to accept the consequences for his actions, and was graceful as always.

Bill does, and always will, have a friend in me.

Kiko said...

One fall guy down.

Coincidental that Weimar was spilling his guts to the feds around the same time Al Gonzalez and Dick Cheney were being indicted in Texas on prison involvement charges?

And is Weimar REALLY retired from the prison industry or he still invested?

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sisuanna said...

I covered Bill W when he was at UAF. He was an opportunist then and he didn't change much. Once a supply sider, always an, ahem, supply sider.

sisuanna said...

I knew Bill W at the UofA. I found him manipulative and an opportunist. Once a supply sider, ahem, always a supply sider

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