by Gwen Moritz
Posted 10/15/2012 12:00 am
Updated 2 years ago
I spent a recent afternoon watching the federal court hearing that culminated with Garret Sorensen being sentenced to 33 months in prison for defrauding his former employer, the USA Drug pharmacy chain. I did not come away satisfied.
When Sorensen's case became public in 2009, I assumed that he and his wife and her sister were exactly the conniving criminals that federal prosecutors described in their indictment. But as the case heated up - especially last fall, when private attorneys and federal prosecutors went to extraordinary lengths to make sure members of the LaFrance family that owned USA Drug would not have to answer any questions under oath - I became convinced that the story was more complicated.
I was truly surprised when Sorensen suddenly pleaded guilty in May on the very day he and his wife and sister-in-law were to go on trial. He admitted guilt, and the charges against Katie Sorensen and Shannon Walters were immediately dropped. Here I'll rely on the words of Katie's defense attorney, Erin Cassinelli, as reported in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette: "I'm not saying Garret's innocent, but the process of indicting spouses and family members, when they're not the clear-cut person responsible for something. ... It makes me question the voluntary nature of pleas."
I definitely am not saying that Sorensen was innocent of any wrongdoing, but I'm not persuaded that what he did wrong was criminal. I thought he had a pretty good chance of convincing a jury that he believed this his college fraternity brother, Stephen LaFrance Jr., son of the company founder, had approved his income-supplementing plan to set up a side business to place USA Drug advertising inserts in newspapers. If so, the remaining question - whether he and his wife and her sister actually performed the service adequately - would make for a routine civil lawsuit.
But Sorensen did plead guilty and did admit criminal wrongdoing. So then I started to think that U.S. District Judge Bill Wilson, who had witnessed and (temporarily) sanctioned the prosecutorial shenanigans, might come to the same conclusion that I had. I thought he might actually throw out the sentencing guidelines - which are just guidelines - and sentence Sorensen to probation and restitution.
After all, the restitution that Sorensen was ultimately ordered to pay - just under $300,000 - is almost identical to the bonus that Lu Hardin finagled out of the University of Central Arkansas under false pretenses. And Wilson's colleague on the federal bench, U.S. District Judge James Moody, gave Hardin probation just a year ago.
There are differences, of course. The guideline sentencing range under Sorensen's plea deal was 33-41 months, enhanced in part because he admitted abusing his position of trust at USA Drug. But in the plea deal Hardin struck, the government specifically - astonishingly - agreed not to ask for any enhancement to his sentence because of his abuse of a position of trust.
The fact that Lu Hardin abused the trust of the entire state of Arkansas in order to feed a gambling addiction is beside the point. Legally, he didn't. His guideline sentence range was 18-24 months.
Then it was cut in half, to nine to 12 months, because Hardin cooperated in another federal investigation. We still don't know what that was about or its value to society, but it was certainly valuable to Hardin. It reduced his recommended sentence to the point that Moody let him stay out of prison and called Hardin's calculated crime an "aberration" from "a life well lived."
It always struck me as strange that a man who had lived such a good life would not only admit to his own crime but also have knowledge of another.
At any rate, Garret Sorensen was not lucky enough to have something to trade for a more lenient sentencing guideline. Nor was he lucky enough to get a judge who saw his one and only crime, one that was at least as dependent on his specific circumstances at USA Drug as Hardin's was at UCA, as an aberration that did not require incarceration. He'll be going away for almost three years. But at least his wife and sister-in-law are off the hook.
I used to feel pretty good about the justice being meted out by the federal courts in the Eastern District of Arkansas, but the Hardin and Sorensen cases have shaken that confidence.
(Gwen Moritz is editor of Arkansas Business. Email her at GMoritz@ABPG.com.)