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Exonerated of charges, former prosecutor Allen Sawyer shares story

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Posted: Monday, March 7, 2011 12:00 am | Updated: 6:02 am, Tue Mar 8, 2011.

The way Allen Sawyer tells it, he had two options, neither of which was good: Risk every dime he had to fight a federal case he felt was weak, or plead guilty to a crime he thought was bogus and spend six months behind bars.

"I spent about $300,000 on legal fees ... and the meter was still running," Sawyer said. "I hadn't even gone to trial and I spent that kind of money."

He'd ultimately plead guilty to a small charge, but years later, a Supreme Court decision in an unrelated case would essentially clear his name. But how did a former prosecutor end up on the wrong side of the law in the first place?

A former deputy district attorney in Lodi and a Tokay High grad, Sawyer was accused of using his position as a state official to influence a power plant deal in Stockton in 2001 and 2002. San Joaquin County Sheriff Baxter Dunn was also in on the deal, as was a former water board member named Monte McFall.

Prosecutors alleged Sawyer, 42, didn't disclose that he would benefit financially if a company called Sunlaw Energy Corp. was allowed to build the power plant. Sawyer was working as the interim head of the Governor's Office of Criminal Justice Planning, and doesn't deny he was trying to help the company — and make some money in the process. He said he checked with the appropriate officials to make sure he was following all the rules.

"I disclosed it to everybody I was supposed to disclose it to," he said. "A lot of people knew (the allegation) was false ... (they said), 'I'm reading in the paper on a big headline that you're hiding this, and this is a secret hidden deal, and you told everybody and their brother.'"

Sawyer said he did nothing wrong and charges were only brought against him once the Sunlaw plant fell through. It's true that Sawyer was not indicted until 2003, but the investigation had been ongoing since 2002. He criticized the case, which was brought in federal court, as being weak.

But Sawyer did something unusual for an innocent man: He pleaded guilty to a charge of honest services fraud in federal court.

The lesser of two evils

The plea raised a critical question: Why, after so much money spent and so much denial, plead guilty?

"I was looking at six months, which I could afford not to be working," Sawyer said. "(Then I could) get back to work and support my family, or risk everything ... It was just too big of a risk."

Sawyer said a plea deal was the safe bet. He was facing extortion charges that could have put him away for a much longer period, and if he had gone to trial, who knows what a jury would have decided. Nobody wants to go to federal prison, but Sawyer said six months was about the sweetest deal he could get — had the offer been for a year in prison, a sentence only six months longer, Sawyer said he would have rejected it.

"Too much. No way. Never," he said of a one-year sentence. "In the federal system, a six-month sentence is unheard of. ... The potential sentence I was facing (through trial) was around 50 years."

So he served his six months, and money he'd saved up allowed his family to maintain the status quo while he was gone for the second half of 2005. Dunn also pleaded guilty to a lesser charge, serving six months as well. Of the five people ultimately implicated in the Sunlaw scandal, McFall was the only one who went to trial. A jury found him guilty of attempted extortion and honest services fraud in 2005, and he was sentenced to 10 years. After appealing the decision, McFall's sentence was reduced and he was released from an Arkansas prison in September of last year.

As for Sawyer, upon his return to civilian life, he opened up a couple of "green" businesses: One company helps develop green construction projects, while the other manufactures biodegradable products.

"That's doing really well," he said of the biodegradables company. "We're on track to go public in the next 18 months."

Then something funny happened in the Allen Sawyer saga: The Supreme Court got involved.

Sawyer gets a little help from Enron

The nation's highest court didn't get involved directly, per se, but its ruling in a separate case opened the door to essentially exonerate Sawyer of his crime forever.

Former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling appealed his own convictions on honest services fraud to the Supreme Court, which then drastically changed the definition of what constituted honest services fraud.

In its ruling in Skilling's case, the court unanimously agreed to limit this kind of fraud to, "fraudulent schemes to deprive another of honest services through bribes or kickbacks supplied by a third party who had not been deceived."

That new definition meant that technically, Sawyer had not committed the crime he pleaded guilty to. It was something Sawyer said he always expected to happen. The definition of honest services fraud was too broad when it was applied to him, he said, and it was unconstitutional.

"I always knew one day it was going to be overturned. Did I ever have any dark moments during that process? Sure," he said. "But I always knew it was going to happen. I just had to be patient."

He applied to have his previously guilty plea vacated, and on Feb. 2, U.S. District Judge Morrison C. England signed an order nullifying the conviction. U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner, who originally prosecuted the case, decided not to oppose Sawyer's request.

"The law changed and so it just seemed like the right thing to do, to not oppose his motion to vacate the conviction," Wagner said. "We could have required that he try to disprove other counts that we gave up in the course of the plea discussion. We certainly could have opposed it ."

Does that mean Sawyer has been cleared of any wrongdoing? Not necessarily, Wagner said.

"I wouldn't call that a vindication of him," Wagner said of the Supreme Court's ruling. "If I had known then, of course, what I know now, about the Supreme Court with their interpretation of the honest services fraud statute ... we certainly would have proceeded differently."

A different point of view

As far as the criminal record is concerned, Sawyer has been absolved. His experience behind bars has changed his perspective, though, and made him realize how tough it is for convicts to reenter society.

"This system now, everything is stacked against you ... that's why recidivism rates are just off the charts," Sawyer said. "Taking a segment of society and discarding them is not financially feasible, and it doesn't work." Sawyer plans to use connections from his previous state positions to try to affect prisoner reintegration policy, in order to help ex-convicts re-enter society. He may even get his law license back, although he doesn't think he'll practice law anymore.

And after this whole ordeal, does Sawyer still believe in the justice system he used to be a part of? Yes, he said unequivocally.

"The system works," Sawyer said, "sometimes, it works slowly."

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