Appeals Court: Maple Grove council member's criminal sentence too light

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Minnesota Court of Appeals overturned the sentence of Maple Grove City Council Member Leann Sargent, saying the judge had been too lenient, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman announced Tuesday.

Sargent pleaded guilty in February 2014 to one count of financial exploitation of a vulnerable adult, her elderly father. That is a felony and under the sentencing guidelines, Sargent should have received probation with 36 months in prison if she violated her probation. Instead, Hennepin County District Court Judge Luis Bartolomei agreed with Sargent’s request, in part to keep her job on the city council, and sentenced her to a gross misdemeanor and 120 days in the county workhouse.

“Because the district court’s stated reasons for the departure are improper and there is insufficient evidence in the record to justify the departure, the district court abused its discretion,” the appeals court said in its ruling released Tuesday.

“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,” Freeman said. “In the case of Council Member Sargent, the Minnesota Court of Appeals agreed with us that there was no reason to give her a lighter sentence and we are pleased she will be resentenced.”

The appeals court found that giving her a lesser sentence so she could keep her council seat, and thus pay restitution, is not a valid reason for that downward departure. In fact, the appeals court noted that Judge Bartolomei undercut his own goal of having her pay back more than $120,000 she took, by ordering her to pay only $78 a month. At that rate, it would take more than 125 years to make restitution.

In a footnote, the appeals court noted that the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office had argued that the lighter sentence left the impression that public officials who commit crimes get special treatment and “we agree with the state’s concern and are mindful of the need for the appearance of fairness in the criminal justice system.”

Sargent had power of attorney over her father’s finances and he eventually moved into Sargent’s house in 2010, where he remained until his death in March 2012. They had a written agreement that Sargent would provide her father with room, board and personal care for $2,000 a month. She not only took  $107,000 more than she was entitled to, but also engineered real estate transactions that left Sargent’s brother with mortgage payments of nearly $13,000 he did not expect.

Sargent  has 30 days to decide whether to appeal. No court date has been set for her new sentencing.