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October 17, 2011

Washington Post editorial call for "Fair sentencing in the Abramoff case"

An inside-the-Beltway political scandal, which has led to a number of inside-the-Beltway sentencings, has now resulted in an inside-the-Beltway sentencing editorial from the Washington Post. This editorial is headlined "Fair sentencing in the Abramoff case," and here are excerpts:

Lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty in 2006 to fraud and bribery charges as the leader of a scheme in which he ripped off Native American clients, plied public officials with all-expenses-paid luxury trips and pocketed tens of millions of dollars for himself.  Mr. Abramoff, who agreed to pay millions in restitution, was sentenced to four years in prison.

Michael Scanlon, Mr. Abramoff’s right-hand man, and Robert Ney, a onetime Republican congressman implicated in the scandal, also entered guilty pleas.  Mr. Scanlon was sentenced to 20 months, Mr. Ney to 30 months.

So what, according to the Justice Department, is the appropriate sentencing range for Kevin A. Ring, a lobbying associate of Mr. Abramoff who was convicted last year but never accused of personally benefiting from the scheme?  A term of 17 to 22 years.  One reason for the astronomical sentence, according to the government: Mr. Ring was the only lobbyist who went to trial instead of pleading guilty and cooperating with the United States.

The government backed off this assessment in a court filing last week, but only after a rebuke from Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.  “Defendant’s position is that the government is retaliating against him for exercising his Sixth Amendment right to trial,” the judge wrote.  “It is easy to see why such an inference might be justified,” she added, especially when the government agreed to far lesser sentences for those who were clearly more culpable.

Individuals who plead guilty and cooperate with the government are often given lighter sentences.  A willingness to accept responsibility and to help law enforcement officials identify others involved in wrongdoing promotes an important public purpose and saves the courts time and money.  There is a fine line between rewarding someone who cooperates and punishing another who chooses to seek vindication in court.  The Justice Department crossed that line in Mr. Ring’s case....

The government now says that 50 months — two months more than Mr. Abramoff’s sentence — would be fair. Mr. Ring is asking for five years’ probation.  The judge has great latitude in this final stage of sentencing.  Judge Huvelle, who is scheduled to formally sentence Mr. Ring at the end of this month, should ensure that he is held accountable for his serious crimes but not punished for choosing to challenge the government’s charges in court.

I am a bit disappointed that the Ring case, and especially Judge Huvelle's notable opinion in the case last month (blogged here), has not brought more attention to how common it is for federal prosecutors to urge remarkably more severe prison terms for those defendants who have the temerity to exercise their right to trial.  But, of course, this phenomenon is just one of so many aspects of prosecutors' broad and unregulated sentencing discretion that gets rarely even noticed, let alone subject to criticism.

October 17, 2011 at 05:15 PM | Permalink

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Comments

Doug,

I don't even practice in federal court regularly, and I've seen this kind of thing many times. The saddest part is that often the guys who go to trial are the least culpable, and they end up in trial either because they were too dumb to plead or didn't have anything to offer in negotiations. The savviest criminals are often also the savviest criminal defendants, and are quicker to save themselves while the same sad sack they talked into helping with the crime bypasses his chance to spill the beans out of misguided loyalty.

I find it hard to see how anyone can look at the federal system at this point and conclude that there is not a substantial, constitutionally troubling trial penalty.

Posted by: Anon | Oct 21, 2011 3:30:51 PM

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