After rejecting an earlier plea deal for being too lenient, a Juneau judge on Monday accepted a new deal for two Alaska reality TV stars and sentenced them to serve 30 days in jail for Permanent Fund Dividend fraud.
Billy Brown, the 63-year-old patriarch of the Brown family featured on Discovery Channel’s “Alaskan Bush People,” and one of his sons, Joshua Brown, 31, have to report to jail on April 15, according to Juneau Superior Court Judge Philip Pallenberg’s order.
“It’s a crime that’s difficult to detect and prosecute, relatively easy to commit,” Pallenberg said of PFD fraud during the Brown’s joint change of plea and sentencing hearing Monday. “... When someone does get caught, if they’re not punished, then it makes the temptation greater for other people, and I think there needs to be a deterrent effect.”
Both Billy and Joshua Brown, who participated in the hearing by phone from California, pleaded guilty to one reduced, consolidated count of unsworn falsification in the second degree, a misdemeanor that can carry up to a year in prison and a $10,000 fine, for lying about their Alaska residency on their PFD applications from 2010 through 2013.
The father and son previously signed written statements admitting they left the state in October 2009 and didn’t return until August 2012, yet continued cashing in on their cut of the state’s oil money, reserved for most Alaskans who reside in the state for a majority of the calendar year. Billy Brown also admitted in court documents that he applied for PFD checks for his three minor children during those years using false residency information.
Two months ago, Pallenberg rejected a plea agreement for the Brown’s that did not require any jail time, saying the deal was too lenient and that he would be inclined to impose a 30-day sentence. The state prosecutor with the Office of Special Prosecutions and Appeals and the family’s defense attorneys came up with a new plea deal presented in court Monday.
The only big difference between the old and new deals — which includes paying back the PFD money, fines, community work service, ineligibility to apply for future PFD checks — was the jail time. The old agreement proposed Billy and Joshua Brown receive a 180-day suspended jail sentence with no time to serve. The new deal called the 180 days of jail time with anywhere between 150 to 180 days suspended. (Or in other words, the new deal capped any potential jail sentence to 30 days to serve.)
At sentencing, Billy Brown’s attorney, James W. McGowan of Sitka, begged the judge not to impose jail time even though the new plea deal allows for it. He said Billy Brown has complicated medical issues, including a seizure disorder and kidney problems.
“This man is not well,” McGowan said, expressing doubt that the Department of Corrections could handle his level of required health care.
McGowan added that the TV show had to move locations due to Billy Brown’s health problems from remote Alaska to a more urban setting, so he could be around doctors.
Kirsten Swanson, the defense attorney for Joshua Brown, told the judge that the younger Brown was so concerned about his father’s health, he offered to do jail time in lieu of his father. Swanson told the judge she already explained to the younger Brown that’s not how it worked, but she asked Pallenberg if he were to sentence one of the two men to “hold them up as an example” that Joshua Brown wants it to be him.
Judge Pallenberg said he was sympathetic toward Brown’s medical issues, but that ultimately both Billy and Joshua Brown should receive jail time for the crime. He imposed 180 days in jail with 150 days suspended for each of them.
“If the only consequence is that someone has to pay back the dividend — and at least the only consequence the court imposes is a suspended sentence and probation, plus paying back the dividend — I don’t think that has the kind of deterring effect that’s needed,” Pallenberg said.
In addition to the jail time, the plea deal the judge accepted requires Billy Brown to pay a $10,000 fine within 90 days of being released from jail, pay back the $7,956 in PFD money he collected illegally, complete 40 hours of community work service that cannot be filmed for the TV show and to do a year of probation. It makes him ineligible for all future PFDs. His attorney, James McGowan, said the PFD money he has to pay back is in the process of being wire transferred to the Juneau PFD office. Prosecutor Lisa Kelley said if her office doesn’t receive confirmation within a week, they will be back in court.
Joshua Brown got the same deal as his father, except he received a $5,000 fine with $3,000 suspended. He has already paid back the PFD money he owed ($1,174), as have the other children and Amora Brown, the family’s matriarch. Collectively, the family took $20,938 in PFD checks that they were not eligible for, the judge said earlier.
A Juneau grand jury indicted six members of the Brown family — Billy and his 52-year-old wife Amora, Joshua, 28-year-old Solomon, 26-year-old Gabriel and 23-year-old Noah — with multiple felonies for unsworn falsification and theft in connection to the case in the fall of 2014.
The plea deal called for the cases against Amora and the three other children to be dismissed, and prosecutor Kelley said she will file that paperwork now that Billy and Joshua Brown have been sentenced.
Before being sentenced, both Billy and Joshua Brown offered brief statements and apologized.
“Your honor, I just want to say that ... I do truly apologize for all of this, and not only for myself, but for, you know, the time and trouble I’ve taken from you and all the people involved in this,” Billy Brown said. “I truly learned a lot about this, and I think truly that you will never see me in any judicial system whatsoever as long as I live.”
Joshua Brown followed: “... I regret the circumstances ... and I have learned a lot from the experience, and thank you for all the trouble, and that’s it.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article erroneously stated that Joshua Brown signed a written statement admitting that he applied for PFD checks for his three minor children during those years using false residency information. It was Billy Brown who did so. We regret the error.