After missing her fourth city meeting Tuesday night, Maple Grove City Council Member LeAnn Sargent is expected to return next month after being released from the county workhouse last week. But she faces growing pressure to resign.
Maple Grove residents and her fellow council members have pushed for her to step down, and now the Hennepin County attorney's office has filed an appeal seeking a felony conviction in her case, which would prohibit the longtime council member from serving in public office.
Sargent, 63, was sentenced in April on a gross misdemeanor for financially exploiting her dying father, despite a felony plea agreement. One of the reasons for the lesser sentence, the judge said then, was because she is on the City Council.
In the appeal filed with the state Court of Appeals last week, the county argued that the sentence didn't meet sentencing guidelines because the amount of money Sargent stole was 100 times more than the statutory limit for a gross misdemeanor crime. Yet, she received a gross misdemeanor sentence, creating "the impression that public officials who engage in criminal behavior get special treatment in the justice system."
"This is in no way proportionate [to] the severity of her crime," the county wrote. She "is an elected official who committed an extremely serious crime. Her sentence was substantially reduced, without legal justification, so she could maintain her public position. Rightly or not, this suggests [Sargent] got some type of advantage that is not extended to other defendants. The public should have confidence that the justice system operates free of favoritism and partiality."
Sargent's attorney, Chris Ritts, called the appeal "ridiculous," especially after Sargent already served her time. She was released Saturday and is on electronic home monitoring.
"I'm disappointed and dismayed by the county attorney's office for doing it this late in the game," he said. "It seems very unfair and mean-spirited."
Sargent, a council member since 1991, wouldn't comment on the case, but she has said she'll remain on the council. Her term ends Dec. 31, 2016.
Last year, Sargent was charged with three felony counts, accused of using her power of attorney to raid the trust fund for her own benefit from 2009 until days before her father, Robert Bobleter, died in 2012 at age 84. She pleaded guilty to a single count of financial exploitation of a vulnerable adult.
Despite a felony plea agreement, Judge Luis Bartolomei told her that he'd sentence her for a gross misdemeanor in part so she could stay on the council.
"I see a person who has accomplished much," he said at the April 7 sentencing. "The community put trust in you. That's what makes this case more bewildering to me. You had a terrible lapse of what is right."
Sargent had said she deserved the lower sentence in part because she took responsibility for the crime, she has no criminal record and she would lose her council job if convicted. She was ordered to serve 60 days in the workhouse followed by electronic home monitoring, as well as to pay restitution of $107,348 to her father's estate and $12,918 to her half-brother, Robert Bobleter Jr.
Sargent is the longest-serving person on the five-member City Council and makes $13,000 a year as a council member.
"I apologize for the embarrassment of the city," she said in an April 21 statement. "Unfortunately, I made mistakes that I am living with. One side of the case was only told. It would be easy to run away, and I know I have an uphill climb to receive your renewed confidence, but my heart is with the city of Maple Grove."
Growing pressure to resign
No one tracks how many public officials in Minnesota have criminal convictions. But Tom Grundhoefer, an attorney with the League of Minnesota Cities, said it's unusual. Maple Grove, like most cities, can't remove an elected official. Officials can only be disqualified from office if convicted of a felony.
In April, the City Council took the rare step of approving a formal censure of Sargent for her "inappropriate behavior," showing its public disapproval. In May, the state revoked Sargent's real estate broker license.
And on May 5, the day before Sargent was booked, she sat silently as resident Dave Lunt told the council she should step down. Lunt, whose wife is on the Osseo school board, said Tuesday that he will keep pressing for her resignation when Sargent returns in August.
"This tarnishes our community and this tarnishes our elected officials," he said. "I just think Maple Grove deserves better."