Federal prosecutors oppose a lenient sentence for former Missouri Democratic Party Chairman Mike Sanders, saying he should serve up to two years in prison for stealing campaign funds and using that cash to pay for “personal luxuries,” including a wine cellar that he had built in the basement of his Independence house.
The government’s stance runs counter to Sanders’ request that he receive probation or a sentence of no more than 18 months. If he is sent to prison, Sanders, 51, suggested he serve it at a federal prison camp in Yankton, S.D., that Forbes magazine called one of “America’s 10 cushiest prisons.”
In their sentencing memorandum filed Wednesday, prosecutors did not address where the former Jackson County executive should serve his time. But they argued against probation and said that 18 to 24 months was “appropriate” as punishment for his guilty plea last January to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud.
“The nature and circumstances of the offense demonstrate an egregious abuse of trust and a prolonged scheme to embezzle money,” prosecutors at the Justice Department’s public integrity section in Washington, D.C., argued in their court filing. “The characteristics of the defendant show the need for a term of imprisonment.”
Sanders, who used to put people in jail as Jackson County prosecutor, is set for sentencing on Wednesday. His former top aide, Calvin Williford, will learn his punishment the following day from the same judge, Roseann Ketchmark, at the federal courthouse in Kansas City.
Williford pleaded guilty to the same charge as Sanders, but under a different set of circumstances. Both men admitted to stealing tens of thousands of dollars from three political campaign funds that Sanders controlled.
Sanders admitted to spending between $15,000 and $40,000 to pay his income taxes, buy wine and take trips to California, as well as on what the government said were “hidden, underhanded political shenanigans.” The court filing did not specify what prosecutors meant by shenanigans, but said the purposes of the expenditures were not accurately reflected on campaign finance disclosure forms.
Williford admitted to misusing $40,000 to $95,000 drawn on the accounts of the campaign committee Sanders controlled, and spending some of that money on gambling trips to Las Vegas.
The government hasn’t said publicly what Williford’s punishment should be. But in their sentencing memorandum for Sanders, prosecutors said Williford (identified as “Person A” in the document) admitted to taking “approximately” 18 trips to Las Vegas with Sanders. Williford said they both embezzled $2,000 apiece before each trip, according to the government’s account.
Sanders denies that he took $2,000 draws for the Vegas trips, the government said in a footnote. Had he admitted to doing so, the document said, it would have added $36,000 to the amount of money he admitted taking. That might have earned him stiffer punishment.
A federal pre-sentence report completed last spring suggested that Sanders should spend 24 to 30 months in prison based in part on what Williford alleged. But in this most recent court filing, prosecutors agreed to stick to a range of 18 to 24 months, as they had negotiated with Sanders last winter in exchange for his guilty plea.
Ketchmark, however, does not have to honor the agreement. Conspiracy to commit wire fraud carries a maximum penalty of five years incarceration and a $250,000 fine.
Sanders admitted to stealing campaign funds through a kickback scheme that he and Williford 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 bank accounts of the three campaign committees Sanders controlled.
The payments were supposedly for political work. But one of the men told The Star prior to Sanders’ guilty plea that his only duty was to launder money. Steve Hill would cash the checks, keep a few hundred dollars for himself, then give the rest to Sanders, who claimed he used most of it to hire campaign workers and pay for other political expenditures.
In his plea for leniency this week, Sanders said he kept $13,454 for himself.
Whatever his sentence, he has agreed to pay the government an as-yet-unspecified monetary penalty, known as a forfeiture payment. Whatever that winds up being, prosecutors requested that none of it come from the more than $400,000 still sitting in the Sanders for Jackson County campaign committee.
Sanders has given up his license to practice law and lately has been doing construction jobs, working with concrete.