Gets prison terms suspended in favor of halfway house and probation
SUBLETTE COUNTY – Former Sublette County Sheriff Stephen Haskell was sentenced Thursday to prison terms for three felonies he was convicted of in February after a Ninth District Court jury trial.
However, the presiding judge suspended prison time for successful completion of a nine-month work-release treatment facility program and five years of concurrent supervised probation.
At the July 27 hearing, presiding Fifth District Judge Steven Cranfill heard arguments from special prosecutor Michael Blonigen and Haskell’s defense attorney Michael Bennett.
The sentences would be imposed for three felonies – obtaining property under false pretenses, unlawfully receiving property and making a false claim – and one misdemeanor of performing an official duty before being qualified to do so.
First, Judge Cranfill referred to the presentence investigation (PSI) report ordered before Haskell’s sentencing, asking if any changes were needed.
“There is an update on his employment,” Bennett said of Haskell. “He is now self-employed. He bought a semi-tractor and trailer from his 401K retirement savings.”
Then the judge asked Blonigen if anyone wanted to make a “victim impact statement.”
“Two, Your Honor,” he replied. “Mary Lankford and Joel Bousman.”
Sublette County Clerk Lankford read from her prepared statement: “I am Mary Lankford, the wife of the former Sheriff Dave Lankford, who was defeated in the 2014 primary election by Stephen Haskell.”
“If you have read either of the Sublette County newspapers, or any of the local social media, since Jan. 5, 2015, that has become my name. I have been accused of being the ‘Fourth Commissioner,’ the ‘Esteemed County Clerk,’ the ‘Commissioners’ Damsel in Distress and most recently, a ‘liar.’ I have been blamed for all of the dysfunction of the Haskell Administration, including his removal from office. The blame and accusations have been personal and in my face every day that Haskell was in office.”
Although she struggles to see herself as a “hurt, bleeding or maimed” victim, she has been “harassed” by frivolous court actions, unjustified labor complaints and a “boating title issue,” she stated.
Lankford also cited two prior court appearances that disrupted her personal, emotional and professional lives, causing her frustration and anger.
She also said that the “animosity” came from Haskell and his administration, alluding to her “safety concerns,” since he and his administration were armed and working in the same building.
“I have wondered, with the Haskell Administration being in charge of my personal safety, if I was really safe. After sentencing? We are still performing public service in a public building and we still all live in the same small community.”
Haskell had opportunities to settle the criminal case and the writ of mandamus petition he filed against Lankford in 2015 “as well as resign from office to avoid removal,” she continued.
However, he “chose to roll the dice in all cases and demanded jury trials,” she said.
“He made the choice to go for the greater punishment instead of the lesser; he should suffer the consequences of his choice,” Lankford stated.
Bousman then briefly spoke, addressing Haskell’s violation of the “very law (he had) sworn to uphold” and the “devastating” negative impacts of his actions.
He said Haskell “threatened and harassed” Sublette County Sheriff’s Office (SCSO) employees “to keep deputies from communicating with their county officials.”
He asked Judge Cranfill to “be appropriately severe in your sentencing.”
Blonigen then began his arguments for two prison terms of two to four years for the first two felonies and one to two years for the third, all to serve concurrently. For the misdemeanor charge, he requested a $1,000 fine. He suggested successful completion of the Adult Community Corrections (ACC) nine-month program, basically a halfway house where felony offenders traditionally receive substance abuse treatment.
Supervised probation was not appropriate although in the PSI recommendation, he said.
Blonigen had also filed a motion seeking Haskell’s payment of restitution to the county and for trial costs, which was also not addressed in the PSI report.
The perception is that public officials won’t be prosecuted and if they are, “get a slap on the wrist,” Blonigen said, adding in Haskell’s case, “The cover-up was worse than the crime.”
“We’ve heard the impacts (on) the county; it has been a long time since I saw a case this disruptive. … ‘That’s the county that had the sheriff that got convicted.’”
He asked the judge to order payment for costs of prosecution, a total of $5,483.59.
Bennett pointed out discrepancies in law and vouchers regarding Blonigen’s motion for Haskell to repay that, saying taxpayers already fund prosecution costs.
“It was very clear from the outset the (Sublette) County Attorney’s Office was not going to be able to prosecute this,” the attorney said.
He objected to repaying prosecution staff’s meals and lodging, saying, “It’s part of the cost of doing business.”
Another cost he challenged was about lodging vouchers turned in specifically by “one former county commissioner.”
Former commissioner Jim Latta turned in vouchers that included a $100 Rock Springs room on Feb. 24 and $998 for Airbnb from Feb. 20-26, court records show.
“He evidently stayed in a B&B in Rock Springs for a number of days,” Bennett said. “… I don’t think that my client should have to pay for someone staying two nights when he was only in one place.”
Bennett also argued the county did not pay for anything it did not receive, asking why restitution to the county was necessary for policy manuals and other SCSO supplies.
Contrary to Blonigen’s argument that Haskell never “accepted responsibility” for his actions, Bennett said, “Mr. Blonigen failed to mention my client taking the stand and in tears … accepting his responsibility. He has accepted a jury of his peers’ convictions of three felonies.”
“Far from feeling sorry for himself” because he was “stymied in his ability to seek the kind of employment he wanted,” Haskell started his own business with his savings – “He’s still contributing to society.”
Felony convictions disenfranchise “a man who went from winning an election to holding public office to now he can’t even vote,” Bennett said, adding some convicted felons don’t care if they ever vote again.
“I get the sense we hand out felonies like toothpicks any more,” Bennett said, noting Haskell’s convictions will “forever follow him.”
As for substance abuse issues, Haskell has none and does not need treatment, nor would imprisonment deter others, he said.
“I don’t think there’s anybody in this room that’s afraid of Stephen Haskell,” he said of public safety. “The question is whether or not Stephen Haskell should go to prison or get supervised probation and I believe it’s the latter. … It’s not about what he deserves; it’s about what’s appropriate.”
Bennett pointed out several similar cases in Wyoming where county officials actually took money, as much as $60,000 and received five years of supervised probation.
He also referred to costs to separate Haskell from the general prison population and the unsuitability of sending him to an ACC facility with a waiting list for people who need treatment – “It’s better used for someone who needs it. This is truly a punitive measure.”
Judge Cranfill addressed the court, saying Haskell’s sentence would be his “final act as a District Court judge and it gives me no pleasure.”
He spoke of public trust and its violation, adding he was “not insensitive to the significance of the felony status … to this particular defendant of the loss of privileges he fully embraced.”
He said looking at Haskell’s actions “before and after … is to fully ignore what he did at that time – an act of arrogance that affected other elected officials.”
He agreed that prison would not be appropriate and then read his ruling.
For felony counts I and II, he sentenced Haskell to three to five years on each conviction, to run at the same time, then suspending all incarceration for successful ACC completion program and five years of supervised probation. On Count III, he ordered one to two years, suspended, with successful ACC and supervised probation. For Count IV, he ordered a $1,000 fine.
“Restitution is ordered as requested,” he continued, presumably for Sublette County the earlier figure of $11,798.50, as he did not name the specific amount in the hearing.
Judge Cranfill told Blonigen the prosecution costs must be adjusted “as Mr. Bennett noted, one witness received payment twice.
“Restitution (terms) can be determined with the probation and parole department,” he said.
Wyoming has three ACC treatment facilities, in Cheyenne, Gillette and Casper, Bennett said afterward, and an application will be submitted once Judge Cranfill issues his written order.
Bennett said they are currently full, with Haskell taking someone’s place at a facility “where people who would benefit the most can’t get in.”
The defense attorney said he is planning an appeal to the Wyoming Supreme Court. The notice of appeal will be filed within the 30-day timeframe that starts with the judge’s written order’s filing in Ninth District Court.