Ex-airport official seeks lighter sentence

Aug. 07, 2014 @ 11:16 AM

The former administrator of Foothills Regional Airport says a federal judge made several errors in his sentencing, so he should receive a new sentencing hearing, according to an appeal filed in U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday.

Alex Nelson of Lenoir, one of three former airport officials who pleaded guilty to federal charges in allegations of wrongdoing at the airport, is accused of taking part in a scheme to use side business accounts to deposit airport checks made out to a bogus company and to award contracts to conspirators at grossly inflated prices. Federal documents said Nelson also used the airport credit card for personal use. Nelson pleaded guilty in September 2012 to one count of conspiracy, one count of embezzlement and one count of money laundering and was sentenced this past February to 37 months in federal prison and three years on supervised probationrelease, and pay he was ordered to pay nearly $180,000 in restitution.

The appeal filed Wednesday claims that the U.S. District Court judge in his case inappropriately categorized him as an organizer or leader of the scheme, overstated the amount of money Nelson was alleged to have pocketed and imposed an excessive sentence.

Being categorized as a leader of a scheme to defraud the airport brought Nelson in for enhanced punishment. But according to the appellate brief filed by Nelson’s attorney, federal sentencing guidelines say that to be identified as a leader in a scheme would require that Nelson had the exercise of decision-making authority, recruited accomplices, claimed a right to a larger share of the profits and more, and that “unquestionably, the district court did not discuss any of these factors before it applied this enhancement.”

The appeals brief also contends that the district court judge previously had determined that Nelson’s wife, Tammy Nelson, bought a 2006 Ford Expedition, a 2008 Mercedes, a pontoon boat, a 2001 Chevrolette Corvette and a swimming pool, worth a total of $88,451, with her own funds before any criminal activity was alleged to have taken place at the airport. But at sentencing those items were included in how Nelson benefitted and in the restitution he must pay. Subtracting them would drop the amount below $120,000, calling for a reduced sentence, the document says.

In an interview with the News-Topic on the day he reported to federal prison in West Virginia, Nelson said he was never given the chance to prove his innocence, that the FBI ignored and misrepresented evidence, and that his attorney in U.S. District Court -- who is not representing him in his appeal -- essentially coerced him into signing an agreement to plead guilty to the federal charges. The appeals brief filed Wednesday did not address those issues.

The prosecution’s response is due Sept. 2.