A Juneau judge on Thursday rejected a proposed plea deal for the reality TV stars on Discovery Channels’ “Alaskan Bush People” who are accused of Permanent Fund Dividend fraud, saying the deal was too lenient and needed to include jail time to “carry some teeth.”
Juneau Superior Court Judge Philip Pallenberg said he would be inclined to make Billy and Joshua Brown, who pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor crime Wednesday in connection to the case, serve 30 days in prison if he were to continue with sentencing.
“I think the average person who looks at that plea agreement is going to see that it’s a plea agreement in which somebody pays back the money, can’t get future PFDs, but nothing else really happens to them,” Juneau Superior Court Judge Philip Pallenberg said during the Brown family’s sentencing hearing Thursday afternoon. “... In a case like this, I think what carries some teeth as a deterrent is jail.”
Pallenberg said the Brown family — featured on the TV show that follows family patriarch Billy Brown, his 52-year-old wife Amora and their seven grown children — collectively stole $20,938 from the people of Alaska by applying and receiving PFD checks that they were not eligible for from 2010 through 2013. That’s about 3.3 cents from each of the 631,000 Alaskans who applied for a PFD, he said.
“(One could say) that just seems trivial, who cares about three pennies? You can find three pennies on the sidewalk if you walk down the street. But if you multiple 3.3 pennies by 631,000 people, you get a lot of money,” he said. “... But if you think about that, is it any less serious if you steal 3.3 cents from 631,000 people, or if you steal $20,000 from one person?”
Rejecting an agreed upon deal reached by prosecutors and defense attorneys is rare in Juneau courts, and it came as a surprise to attorneys who expected the case to resolve during Thursday’s hearing. Immediately after the judge made his comments, the defense attorneys for 62-year-old Billy Brown and his 31-year-old son Joshua moved to withdraw their guilty pleas from the day prior.
Judge Pallenberg accepted those motions, and since it’s no longer known how the case will proceed, scheduled a status hearing two weeks from now Dec. 3.
A Juneau grand jury in the fall of 2014 indicted six members of the Brown family — Billy, Amora, Joshua, 28-year-old Solomon, 25-year-old Gabriel and 23-year-old Noah — with multiple felonies for unsworn falsification and theft for lying about their Alaska residency and absences from the state on their Permanent Fund Dividend applications from 2010 through 2013.
Billy and Joshua signed statements read into court Wednesday admitting that they had left the state of Alaska in October 2009 and didn’t return until August 2012, thus breaking their state residency, yet still applied for PFDs during that time. Most Alaskans who live in the state for the full calendar year are eligible for a PFD check, which is a cut of the state’s oil revenue money.
Billy Brown’s attorney James W. McGowan of Sitka said Thursday that Brown had left Alaska at that time to talk to the TV networks about promoting a book he wrote about living in Bush Alaska. He pushed back on the notion that the Browns are being deceptive by claiming to be Alaskans.
“There’s no question that they have a long history in Alaska and do have this history that’s displayed on their show,” McGowan said. “The fact that they left the state in 2009 while he tries to sell the book, and they ended up spending a lot of time down south ... that doesn’t change the fact that these people are the real McCoy.”
Likewise, Amora Brown’s attorney, Julie Willoughby of Juneau, said that when it comes to the sentiment of “home is where the heart is,” Alaska will always be home for Amora. She acknowledged, however, that the state of Alaska may have a stricter view of Alaskan residency.
Willoughby said Amora Brown also wanted to resolve this legal case without going to trial because she and the other family members are concerned about the impact it would have had on Billy Brown’s health. She did not specifically say what ails Brown.
“She is putting, and I believe the rest of the family is putting, their concerns about the health of the family and the health specifically of Mr. McGowan’s client as the number one priority,” she said. “So after much work and much negotiation, this was the resolution that four attorneys came to.”
A plea deal in place proposed that Billy and Joshua Brown each plead guilty to one reduced, consolidated misdemeanor of unsworn falsification in the second degree and receive a 180-day suspended jail sentence with no time to serve. The deal called for them to serve two years on unsupervised probation, do 40 hours of unpaid community service that cannot be filmed, and to pay the money back to the Permanent Fund Division; state statutes would ensure they never be allowed to apply for a PFD check again. In exchange, the cases against Amora Brown and the rest of the children would be dismissed, but only on the condition that they each do 40 hours of community service and pay back the PFD money. They also would have to agree not to ever apply for the PFD again.
Moments before Judge Pallenberg rejected the deal, Assistant Attorney General Lisa Kelley with the state of Alaska’s Office of Special Prosecutions and Appeals urged Pallenberg to accept it. She said by phone from Anchorage that unlike other PFD fraud cases she has prosecuted, which rely on documents and records, the case against the Browns relies in large part on witness testimony, which would make for a “complicated” trial.
“Trial is never a guarantee for either side,” Kelley said, adding that it’s possible witnesses may not remember details relevant to the case since a couple of years have passed.
Kelley said isolation from the public is not necessary since the Browns do not have a violent past. She said no one in the Brown family has had a criminal conviction in the past 30 or 40 years. She said she had heard Billy Brown might have a criminal case out of Texas from the 1970s, but she couldn’t confirm it.
McGowan, also appearing by phone, told the judge jail wasn’t necessary, saying the Browns have now been subjected to “public ridicule and humiliation” due to the national news coverage of their case.
“That’s a pretty bitter pill, judge,” McGowan said. “I think it’s a real bitter pill. That’s worse than sitting in the bucket for a couple of weeks, if you ask me.”
Judge Pallenberg said Alaskans take PFD fraud seriously, and that the sentence needs to reflect the high level of community condemnation, deter others in the state from PFD fraud, and be similar to other sentences for PFD fraud, which have included jail time. He said he’d be more apt to accept a plea deal that calls for 180 days in prison with 150 days suspended (30 to serve), rather than 180 days with all time suspended (as the plea deal proposes).
“I don’t think the Browns should be treated more harshly because they have a TV show. I don’t think they should be treated more harshly because there’s a lot of public attention on this case, but they certainly shouldn’t be treated more leniently because of that either,” Pallenberg said.
The Browns, who participated in court Thursday by phone from Seattle, did not speak during the hearing on advice from counsel.
From here, the rejection of the plea deal brings the case back to “square one” of the legal proceedings, said Juneau defense attorney Kirsten Swanson, who is representing Joshua Brown and the other four Brown children.
Swanson explained that the original indictment against Billy and Amora Brown had been dismissed without prejudice for various legal reasons last month, and that the indictments against the rest of the children were to be joined to that motion. Rather than waiting for the state to convene another grand jury, which likely would have indicted them on the same charges, the family instead agreed to proceed with the plea deal.
But now that Pallenberg has rejected the deal, a number of things can happen.
“Since the deal was just rejected, now basically the ball ... goes back into (the prosecutor) Ms. Kelley’s hands, and she has to make a decision: Do I take it back to grand jury, or what do I do?” Swanson said.
It’s also possible the prosecutor and three defense attorneys in the case reach another plea deal, present it to Pallenberg and once again proceed to sentencing.
Either way, “we were hopeful that this was going to be over, and we kind of hit the re-start button,” Swanson said. “That’s probably why the judge is giving us two weeks, so everybody can reevaluate and see where we’re going.”