The man who many Democrats thought could go all the way to the Missouri governor's mansion instead will be going to federal prison for more than two years.
Former Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders was sentenced Wednesday to 27 months in prison for a wire fraud conviction in connection with a kickback scheme that netted Sanders at least $40,000.
Sanders asked for five years probation and no prison time. His attorney, J.R. Hobbs pleaded with the court for an hour to spare Sanders time behind bars. Hobbs said Sanders did much to improve Jackson County from renovating the Independence courthouse to installing street lights in eastern parts of the county. Hobbs said Sanders often showed "acts of charity, acts of kindness" that many people didn't know about.
The government argued otherwise. Sanders showed "protracted criminal behavior" over a number of years, according to Lauren Bell, an attorney with the Public Integrity Section with the Department of Justice. Only prison, she said, would send a message to other public officials to stay within the law.
The government asked for 18 to 24 months in prison.
But U.S. District Court Judge Roseann Ketchmark seemed in no mood for leniency and sentenced Sanders to 27 months, more than the government wanted. He also must forfeit the $40,000 of ill-gotten gains. A scheme like the one Sanders perpetrated "causes a schism in the community and actual disengagement from our democracy," Ketchmark said. "It's hard to repair."
Sanders also asked to self-surrender. At one point Ketchmark contemplated having the U.S. Marshalls handcuff him and put him on a bus directly to the Leavenworth Detention Center, a maximum security, private institution.
Hobbs argued hard against that and the judge called a brief recess to confer with the probation department. After a tense few minutes, Ketchmark returned and agreed to let Sanders surrender.
Sanders asked to be assigned to the minimum security prison in Yankton, South Dakota. That facility has welding and electronics programs. Sanders suggested he would like to study some type of trade.
Ketchmark refused to make a recommendation and told Sanders to surrender on Nov. 5.
Sanders scheme involved having checks cut from three political campaign committees under his control. Those checks would be cashed by others with most of the money kicked back to Sanders.
Some of the money, the government said, was used for lavish vacations and to build and stock a wine cellar. Other money was used for political dirty tricks. Sanders would pay people to tear down yard signs and to protest at opponents events, the government said.
"I blame no one else for the mistakes I have made," Sanders said in a statement handed out by his lawyer. "Although, clearly, I have made mistakes, I fully intend to work hard to turn this situation into something positive."
Sanders has already surrendered his law license and says he has been working in construction since pleading guilty in January. Sanders says he and his family are living on far less than when he was a lawyer.
While he may have some lean years while in prison and after, he appears to be heading for a comfortable retirement. The Jackson County Pension Board ruled that Sanders may keep his pension even though he is a convicted felon. The board said because he did not embezzle tax money or steal from the county he is entitled to his pension.
Sanders worked for Jackson County for at least 13 years—first as an assistant prosecutor, then as the elected prosecuting attorney and finally as county executive. Using his final salary and the formula in the county charter, Sanders could receive up to $80,000 a year in retirement.
That could go up. Jackson County calculates pensions for elected officials not on their final salary but the salary of the person in office at the time the official retires.
Still to be sentenced in this case is Calvin Williford, Sanders former chief of staff. He also pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud in a similar scheme. Sentencing is set for him Thursday afternoon.
The sentencing memos for Williford were still sealed Wednesday afternoon. This suggests that Williford may be cooperating with investigators.
Editor's note: This story was updated at 5:03 p.m. with information about Sander's pension.
Celisa Calacal contributed to this story.