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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, July 12, 2006

VOLCANIC ASH
Federal courts' foot-dragging denies justice

By David Shapiro

Kenneth Lay's death months before he was to be sentenced to prison for fraud and conspiracy in the Enron scandal points up how far our federal courts have strayed from the ideal of swift justice.

Legal experts say the passing of the 64-year-old Enron founder before his sentencing could nullify his conviction.

That would stymie efforts by prosecutors to recover $43 million Lay pocketed from Enron bonuses and lines of credit in the collapse that cost 4,000 jobs and billions of dollars in stockholder equity.

The dilemma traces to the notorious intervals in the federal courts between conviction and sentencing and sometimes between sentencing and commencement of the prison term.

The foot-dragging seems most evident in cases involving prominent defendants and the public trust, giving the appearance of a system of separate-and-unequal justice for the well-connected.

Lay was convicted by a Houston jury in May, but wasn't scheduled to be sentenced until Oct. 23.

Most state courts handle sentencing in a matter of weeks.

Locally, we've seen too many similar delays in concluding the cases of high-profile federal defendants.

Honolulu residents in 2001 had to put up with the spectacle of former city Councilman Andy Mirikitani continuing to serve for five months while awaiting sentencing on convictions for theft, bribery, extortion, wire fraud and witness tampering.

Former Bishop Estate trustee Lokelani Lindsey pleaded guilty to money laundering in June 2002, but wasn't sentenced to her six-month term until that October.

Even then, U.S. District Judge David Ezra let her postpone prison for a year so she could take care of her terminally ill husband finally ordering her into detention after she was spotted in Las Vegas when she was supposedly caring for her spouse.

Former United Public Workers boss Gary Rodrigues hasn't seen a day inside of a prison cell in the more than 3 1/2 years since he was convicted on 101 counts of fraud, embezzlement and money laundering.

Rodrigues was found guilty by a federal jury on Nov. 19, 2002, but wasn't sentenced until Sept. 30, 2003, when Ezra gave him five years and four months in federal prison.

Rodrigues also was ordered to pay a $50,000 fine and $378,000 in restitution to UPW, as well as $10,100 to defray court costs.

But Ezra suspended the sentence pending the outcome of an appeal to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals by the unrepentant Rodrigues.

He extended the same courtesy to the labor leader's daughter, Robin Haunani Rodrigues Sabatini, who was convicted on 95 counts and sentenced to three years and 10 months in prison.

There's been no word back from the appeals court in the nearly three years since, and attorneys say there's a possibility the court could delay a ruling even longer by calling them back for further arguments.

However the Rodrigues case is decided, there are basic issues of fairness raised by the endless delay.

If the appeals panel finds reason to overturn his conviction, it's not fair that he should have to spend his final years before reaching retirement age under a dark cloud.

If the conviction is upheld, he's had all this time to spend down his assets including the allegedly ill-gotten gains involved in the litigation that were supposed to pay his fines and restitution.

And you can be sure that if the appeals court lets the conviction stand, attorneys for Rodrigues, who was 61 at his sentencing, will be arguing that he's now too old and infirm to serve his time.

Before indulging in such unduly leisurely deliberations, federal judges would do well to remember that justice delayed is justice denied.

David Shapiro, a veteran Hawai'i journalist, can be reached by e-mail at dave@volcanicash.net.