The gross misdemeanor sentence that Maple Grove City Council Member LeAnn Sargent received for exploiting her dying father was unjustifiably lenient, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday.
Sargent, who cheated her father out of $100,000, is now likely to get slapped with the original felony plea agreement crafted by the Hennepin County attorney's office — a sentence that would prevent her from serving in public office.
Although the Appeals Court reviews many challenges from criminals who believe their prison sentences were unjust, it's rare for it to hear a county attorney's office argue that its own district judge's punishment was too lenient.
"We believe that all citizens found guilty of a felony crime, whether a public official or not, whether a white-collar crime or not, should be sentenced according to the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines, unless there is a profound reason not to do so," County Attorney Mike Freeman said.
Sargent, 64, a council member since 1991, has remained on the council despite strong public pressure to resign. Her term ends Dec. 31, 2016. Over the past months, a small group of residents has quietly held signs during council meetings asking her to step down.
"I apologize for the embarrassment of the city," Sargent said last year. "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."
Sargent, as well as Maple Grove's mayor and city administrator, did not return calls for comment Tuesday. Her attorney, Kirk Anderson, said that he was disappointed with the Appeals Court's decision and that he and Sargent are discussing a petition for review by the state Supreme Court.
The judge's argument
When District Judge Luis Bartolomei sentenced Sargent in April for a gross misdemeanor, he told her it was done in part so she could remain on the council, a position that pays $13,000 a year. Sargent was ordered to pay restitution of nearly $130,000 within a year. She also served two months in the workhouse, followed by two months on home monitoring, missing several council meetings.
"The community put trust in you," the judge said at that sentencing. "That's what makes this case more bewildering to me."
Sargent has said she deserved the lighter sentence because she took responsibility for the crime, has no criminal record and was in poor health.
The county's argument
Hennepin County successfully argued in its appeal that Bartolomei's 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. The lighter sentence creates "the impression that public officials who engage in criminal behavior get special treatment in the justice system," the county argued.
Sargent exploited her father's vulnerability and her crime was a well-planned, deliberate assault on his financial legacy, the county attorney's office said in its appeal.
In Tuesday's ruling, the Appeals Court noted that "we agree with the state's concern and are mindful of the need for the appearance of fairness in the criminal justice system."
Bartolomei's reasons for departing to a lower sentence were wrongly based on "offender"-related factors instead of "offense"-related factors, the Appeals Court said. Sargent's payment of restitution and amenability to probation weren't valid reasons for a lighter punishment, and her lack of criminal history was irrelevant, it said.
"Because there is no identifiable, substantial and compelling circumstances that justify a downward durational departure in this case, the district court abused its discretion in granting the departure," the ruling said.
Citizen group pleased
A group of Maple Grove residents responsible for the "Unseat LeAnn Sargent" Facebook page expressed satisfaction with the ruling. A posting said that although the group bears Sargent no ill will, "we are also satisfied that the proper course will now be taken and that our city will have a chance to place someone on the council who can represent us without reproach."
Therese Noren, a member of the group, said that they've all been "invested in this" and that Sargent should have resigned at the start. She's been defiant and unremorseful, Noren said, adding that she now fears Sargent will drag out her legal challenges until her term ends.
"I'm glad the court agreed what she did was improper and that the judge should be held accountable," Noren said.