Government & Politics

‘Cushy’ prison or probation? Former top Missouri Dem Mike Sanders’ sentencing nears

Here’s how Mike Sanders’ alleged kickback scheme worked

Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders engineered a kickback scheme while he was in office from 2010 to 2013, a participant has told The Star.
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Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders engineered a kickback scheme while he was in office from 2010 to 2013, a participant has told The Star.

Facing up to two years in prison, former Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders is asking instead for probation or house arrest as punishment for his felonious misuse of tens of thousands of dollars in campaign funds.

But if a judge does order incarceration, the former Missouri Democratic Party leader wants to serve his time at one of what Forbes magazine called “American’s 10 cushiest prisons.”

Sanders pleaded guilty in January to one federal count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and will be sentenced Sept. 19 in Kansas City.

While the charge carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison, a first-time offender such as Sanders would be sentenced to no more than 24 to 30 months under federal sentencing guidelines, according to a new court filing, or 18 to 24 months in keeping with his plea agreement.

Sanders’ criminal defense attorneys argued in Monday’s motion for a downward variance in sentence, saying that their client deserves a lighter sentence because of his brief military service during the first war in Iraq, as well as his four years as Jackson County prosecutor and nine years as county executive. Also, they said he and his family have already suffered financially, he is losing his law license and will endure long-term damage to his reputation because of his misdeeds.

He has been working construction since resigning from his job at an Independence law firm, according to the court document.

“Imprisonment is not always required to deter others from criminal conduct,” attorneys J.R. Hobbs and Marilyn B. Keller wrote. “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.”

Sanders admitted to stealing campaign funds through a kickback scheme that he and a former aide engaged in from 2009 to 2014. On at least 34 occasions, Sanders had two men he knew from childhood cash checks for him totaling $62,000. The checks were made out to them on the bank accounts of three campaign committees Sanders controlled.

The payments were supposedly for political work. But more than a month before Sanders’ indictment, one of the men told The Star that his only duty was to launder money for Sanders. Steve Hill said he would cash the checks, keep a few hundred dollars for himself, then hand deliver the rest to Sanders, who claimed he used most of it to hire campaign workers and pay for other political expenditures, which were not later disclosed on state campaign finance reports.

Sanders admitted in the new court filing that he kept $13,454 for himself. Authorities say he spent it on trips to California wine country and to pay his income taxes, among other things.

Separately, his aide Calvin Williford admitted to stealing even more campaign money than Sanders did in a scheme that, according to Sanders’ filing this week, involved as many as 13 people who cashed the checks. Williford spent the money on personal expenses, “including gambling activities,” Sanders’ lawyers said.

Williford also pleaded guilty in January to conspiracy to commit wire fraud and will be sentenced the day after Sanders’ court appearance.

In their court motion, Sanders’ lawyers argue that if he serves any time at all, it should be no more than 12 to 18 months under the federal sentencing guidelines. Federal prosecutors argue that he should be subject to the higher sentencing range because as an elected official he abused the public trust.

But Hobbs and Keller said that the standard should not apply because Sanders deceived the treasurers of the three campaign committees, not the public as a whole.

“To be clear, the ... conduct involved the misuse of certain campaign accounts, not government proceeds,” the motion said.

Sanders argues that justice would be better served if he never spent even a day in prison. He is a good man, his attorneys said, who has accepted responsibility for his crime, is remorseful and prepared at sentencing to pay $25,000 of the up to $40,000 he will owe the government in forfeiture payments.

Judge Roseann Ketchmark will decide what the punishment will be. Should it be prison, Hobbs and Keller offered their client’s suggestion:

“If a custody sentence is imposed, Mr. Sanders respectfully requests that the court recommend to the Bureau of Prisons that he be designated to FPC Yankton.”

That’s the Federal Prison Camp in Yankton, S.D., five hours north of Kansas City on Interstate 29. It’s a minimum security facility whose building and grounds were until the 1980s home to Yankton College. It’s a handsome facility in a nice neighborhood near downtown.

Its more than 500 male prisoners are on their honor to stay put as there is no barbed wire or high walls.

In 2009, the prison camp was No. 4 on the Forbes list of “America’s 10 Cushiest Prisons.” CNBC’s white-collar crime show “American Greed” described inmate life at FPC Yankton this way:

“Inmates have the opportunity to leave the prison site and go into the community by volunteering for local nonprofits, such as Habitat for Humanity. The inmate and charity must be approved, and the prisoner is supervised by a representative from the organization. Those who stay inside the prison camp may play sports, take art lessons, or play any of the instruments in the music room. There is also a library with hundreds of books.”

Should Sanders serve time, there is no guarantee he will end up in Yankton, as the decision rests solely with the Bureau of Prisons. But the bureau generally tries to accommodate the wishes of federal judges when a request is made, said James Eisenbrandt, a Kansas City defense attorney who often represents people accused of white collar crimes.

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