FORMER GUAM OFFICIAL GETS 8-YEAR SENTENCE

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By Steve Limtiaco

HAGÅTÑA, Guam (Pacific Daily News, Mar. 31) - Former Department of Parks and Recreation Director Austin "Sonny" Shelton must spend another four years and 10 months behind bars, federal Judge Robert Jones decided yesterday afternoon during Shelton's resentencing hearing.

Shelton originally was sentenced in January 2002 to 10 years in prison after he was found guilty of bid-rigging, wire fraud and money laundering in connection with federally funded projects to repair damage caused by 1997's Supertyphoon Paka. Shelton accepted $112,000 in kickbacks from contractors, which he was ordered by the court to repay.

Guam will lose $575,955 in federal disaster money related to Supertyphoon Paka because Shelton's crimes tainted the relief projects, according to court testimony, including more than $400,000 that could have been spent to repair Paseo Stadium.

Shelton, who has been confined in a medium-security federal prison in Oregon, had to be resentenced after a federal appeals court determined that federal Judge John Unpingco made a mistake during Shelton's sentencing in 2002.

Shelton's attorney, Randall Cunliffe, yesterday asked the judge to immediately release Shelton based on the time he already has served, saying there is nothing to be gained by keeping Shelton behind bars. The time Shelton has spent in prison is enough to deter others from committing similar crimes, Cunliffe said, and there is no indication that Shelton poses any danger. Shelton already has served 42 months, including prison credit, Cunliffe said.

Despite Cunliffe's request, Jones yesterday resentenced Shelton to 100 months in prison, or eight years and four months.

Afterward, Shelton must serve three years of supervised release and must repay the bribes he accepted. The judge's decision was based mainly on the money-laundering conviction, which carried the stiffest sentence. The penalties for Shelton's lesser crimes will be served at the same time.

Jones said he hopes the sentence reinforces the idea that public officials must be held accountable and should serve the public, not their own interests.

He said letting Shelton go would have confirmed the public's impression that people can get away with those types of crimes.

"I can't leave that impression. It would violate my conscience," Jones said.

Jones could have sentenced Shelton to more than 11 years in prison, according to the sentencing guidelines, but Jones said a supportive letter from Shelton's prison pastor caused him to reject a tougher sentence.

Shelton appears to be humbled and "shows signs of having turned around," the judge said of the pastor's letter.

However, Jones said he was disturbed by letters written by Shelton's children, who said they look to their father as a role model and who said they don't believe he did anything wrong.

Jones said Shelton's sentence also was not made any lighter because of "his lack of acknowledgment and cooperation," and because Shelton has not helped authorities identify others involved in his crimes or in similar crimes.

Jones said taking bribes while holding a government position is a violation of public trust, and Shelton's crimes cost the people of Guam more than $500,000, in addition to the $112,000 in bribes.

Much of yesterday's hearing was spent determining the overall cost of Shelton's crimes, with U.S. attorneys calling witnesses to testify about tainted typhoon projects that were supposed to be funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The cost of Shelton's crimes was a possible consideration in his overall sentence, although Jones said they ultimately made no difference in his final decision.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars in relief money has been sitting in government of Guam bank accounts untouched because the local government does not have the supporting documents to justify the spending for those projects, said Judy Shockley, public assistance officer for the government of Guam's Disaster Recovery Office.

Richard Fuentes, a special agent with the Department of Homeland Security's Office of the Inspector General, told the court that he contacted the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which plans to take its money back.

"The projects that were tainted by fraud are not going to be reimbursed," U.S. Attorney Joseph Wilson told the court. "Unfortunately, the people who suffer because of that are the people of Guam."

Judge Unpingco in 2002 used his discretionary authority to give Shelton more time in prison than the suggested federal sentencing guidelines, citing the federal disaster money that Guam lost because of Shelton's crimes and because of the federal money it could lose during future disasters.

The appeals court determined that the island's potential future losses were not a valid reason for a stiffer sentence, so it allowed Shelton to be resentenced.

After sentencing Shelton, the judge granted Shelton's request to be transferred from the Sheridan medium-security prison in Oregon to the Nellis minimum-security federal prison camp in North Las Vegas, where Shelton has family.

Shelton, who has been free on bail since last December, will remain free until 1 p.m. April 29, when he must surrender to U.S. Marshals. He has the option, however, of turning himself in sooner once he is officially assigned to the Las Vegas prison.

April 1, 2005

Pacific Daily News: www.guampdn.com

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