Former Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders sentenced to 27 months in federal prison

A federal judge on Wednesday sentenced disgraced former Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders to 27 months in prison for engineering a kickback scheme in which he spent tens of thousands of dollars in embezzled campaign funds to pay for trips, buy fine wine and carry out political dirty tricks.

Judge Roseann Ketchmark also ordered Sanders to forfeit $40,000 of the money he stole from three campaign committees that he controlled as punishment for his guilty plea to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Ketchmark called Sanders’ crime one “rooted in public corruption.”

Ketchmark took note of Sanders’ contributions to charity and other public deeds in considering his plea for leniency, but ultimately decided that the nature of Sanders’ criminal activity coupled with his role as Jackson County’s top elected official necessitated a sentence tougher than even the 18 to 24 months that federal prosecutors sought.

“It causes cynicism and disengagement from our democracy,” Ketchmark said. “So the harm, in terms of the harm of the offense, is hard to measure and hard to repair.”

The sentence includes three years of supervised release after Sanders, who under the federal system will serve a minimum of 23 months of incarceration. He must report to prison Nov. 5.

Sanders asked to serve his time at the minimum security federal prison camp in Yankton, S.D.., which Forbes magazine once called one of “America’s 10 Cushiest Prisons.” Sanders started to explain why Yankton would be a good place to do his time, including a welding program there that interested him.

But Ketchmark cut him off: “I’m not going to make any recommendation.” His assignment, she said, will be left entirely to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.

The severity of the sentence surprised many of those in a courtroom packed with Sanders’ friends and family. Standing side-by-side at the lectern before the judge, Sanders and lead defense attorney J.R. Hobbs turned and locked eyes as Ketchmark ordered his punishment.

Sanders was accompanied by his wife, Georgia, and other family in the courtroom. They said nothing as they left the courthouse in bright sunshine on a wilting September afternoon.

Jackson County Legislator Denny Waits greeted Sanders shortly after the sentence was handed down.

“You doing OK?” Waits asked.

“It is what it is,” Sanders replied.

Sanders came ready to pay $25,000 of the $40,000 forfeiture order on Wednesday.

The forfeiture amount was also at the top of the sentencing range that Sanders and prosecutors settled on in their plea agreement. Sanders had earlier admitted to laundering more than $60,000 in stolen proceeds from political campaign committees, but that he spent half of that for political purposes that he didn’t want to acknowledge on campaign finance reports. He paid people to pull up his opponent’s yard signs and sent out negative mailers, for instance, activities that prosecutor Lauren Bell called “underhanded political tricks.”

The other half of that $60,000 he split with two brothers he’d known since they were kids growing up in the northland. They helped him with the kickback scheme by cashing checks for him written on campaign committee accounts.

Sanders admitted to stealing $13,000 to pay his income taxes, take trips to California and build a wine cellar in the basement of his Independence home that he shares with his wife and two sons.

The other $17,000 went to Joe and Steve Hill. That was their cut for cashing checks made out to them for campaign work they never performed. Each time they would keep about $500 and give the rest to Sanders.

Joe Hill killed himself on Thanksgiving 2009. Steve Hill cooperated with prosecutors and was never charged, but agreed to pay a form of restitution.

Two of the campaign committees from which they were paid are now defunct. Prosecutors asked that Sanders be barred from dipping into the $400,000 still left in the remaining one, Sanders for Jackson County, to cover his $40,000 obligation to the government, and Hobbs agreed, saying campaign finance laws would forbid that.

Wednesday’s sentencing completed the stunning downfall of a glib, ambitious pol who, beginning in 2002, went onto easily win four countywide elections, first as prosecutor and then executive. Sanders, 51, was once seen as a promising candidate for statewide office or Congress. He led the Missouri Democratic Party from 2011 to 2013.

During his nine years running the county, Sanders oversaw the renovation of the Historic Truman Courthouse on Independence Square, among many other projects and often boasted of running an efficient operation without ever asking for a tax increase.

Most Monday afternoons, he would swagger into Jackson County’s legislative chamber shortly before 2:30, glad-handing and cracking jokes before giving his weekly update to the governing body.

“I’m just living the dream,” he’d say half sarcastically afterward to news reporters plying him with questions as he made his way for the exit.

A hint of that swagger was still evident Wednesday on the eighth floor of the Charles Evans Whittaker Courthouse. Before sentencing, Sanders gabbed with friends in the hall, then strode into the courtroom with the same breezy confidence he once exuded two blocks south in the courthouse Harry Truman built in downtown Kansas City when Truman essentially held the same job Sanders then occupied..

Sanders’ dream took a dark turn several years ago, after the FBI quietly began asking questions about the suspected misuse of campaign funds. He pleaded guilty Jan. 26, just over two years after his surprising resignation to ostensibly spend more time with his family and make more money than he could as a public official by returning to private law practice.

Prosecutors had recommended he serve a sentence of 18 to 24 months in keeping with his plea agreement. But Sanders’ attorneys argued in the sentencing memorandum they filed last week that he deserved a lighter sentence because of his brief military service during the first war in Iraq, as well as his many years of public service and charity work.

Sanders and his family have already suffered financially, they said, and he will endure long-term damage to his reputation because of his misdeeds. He may never again be allowed to make his living practicing law. This summer he was working on construction jobs as a laborer, Hobbs said.

“Imprisonment is not always required to deter others from criminal conduct,” Hobbs and co-counsel Marilyn B. Keller had written in their sentencing memorandum. “As noted above, this wrong will most certainly overshadow if not subsume the good works Mr. Sanders has otherwise accomplished over the course of his career in public service.”

Hobbs reiterated that argument at Wednesday’s court hearing.

But Ketchmark didn’t buy it. She was concerned, she said, by some of what she read in Sanders’ pre-sentence investigation report, as well as in the government court filing that argued Sanders certainly deserved prison time as an elected official who abused the public trust.

Sanders’ former chief of staff and co-conspirator in the kickback scheme, Calvin Williford, told prosecutors that he and Sanders took 18 gambling trips to Las Vegas during an unspecified number of years, and that each time both men would pilfer $2,000 in campaign funds to cover some of those expenses.

Sanders did not admit to that in his plea deal, which troubled Ketchmark and may have been one factor influencing her decision to deliver a stiffer sentence than expected. Another was what she called Sanders’ “protracted criminal behavior,” noting that the kickback scheme lasted from 2006 to 2014, rather than “just a one-time lapse in judgment.”

And despite Hobbs’ arguments that Sanders is deep down a good family man who served in the military and had an otherwise clean record, she said his offenses did more than damage his own integrity. They added to the cynicism with which people increasingly view government.

“The nature of the offenses cause the erosion of public trust in government,” Ketchmark said. They breed greater “disregard in our government,” she said.

Sanders once cast himself as a tough-on-crime prosecutor and later a squeaky clean leader of county government, which contrasted himself against predecessors who had been ensnared in legal and political scandal.

One of Sanders’ first initiatives as Jackson County Executive was instituting a new rule that required legislative approval of county contracts worth more than $5,000, a move meant to combat the county’s reputation for patronage.

It was somewhat ironic, then, that one of the first public hints that things were amiss with Sanders politically was news in 2015 that the FBI was looking into a $75,000 contract awarded to a political consultant for health care-related services for the county, which raised questions about whether Sanders had any role in steering the contract to its recipient.

But it turned out that the FBI had been looking into others matters involving Sanders, too.

For years, Sanders controlled campaign committees, including one called Integrity in Law Enforcement, which received thousands of dollars in political contributions and would disperse funds mostly to low-profile political candidates and causes in Jackson County. The committees also paid people like Steve Hill for campaign-related activities.

Hill told The Star last year that he was first approached by the FBI about its interest in Sanders’ manipulation of campaign funds in 2014. Hill said he called Sanders to say that investigators were asking questions, which turned out to be the last conversation between the two childhood friends.

Hill eventually cooperated with investigators after learning that prosecutors were mounting a Social Security fraud case against him.

Williford will be sentenced Thursday, also for one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Documents discussing his possible punishment were filed under seal.