Judge rejects plea deal, says 'Alaskan Bush People' stars deserve jail time
A Juneau Superior Court judge today rejected a plea deal that would have allowed stars of the "Alaskan Bush People" series to avoid jail time for Permanent Fund dividend fraud.
The agreement called for dismissal of charges against four members of the reality TV family, and reduced charges against father Billy Brown and his son Joshua Brown. Judge Philip Pallenberg said the family stole a total of $20,938 by lying on applications for Alaska's annual oil revenue windfall check.
That amounts to stealing about 3 cents per Alaskan, he calculated. Letting the two Browns who are facing criminal charges avoid time behind bars would send the wrong message, he said.
“I don’t think the Browns should be treated more harshly because they have a TV show. … But they certainly shouldn’t be treated more leniently because of that either,” the judge said.
Pallenberg said he thinks jail time -- likely 30 days behind bars -- would have been an appropriate punishment.
"Someone living in a trailer in the Valley (who) stole $2,000 worth of merchandise from Wal-Mart, they would serve jail time," he said.
Lawyers for both sides argued in favor of the plea agreement, saying that the public condemnation of outraged online comments and heavy press coverage is a punishment all its own.
“The public is outraged," said defense attorney James McGowan, adding that the high-profile case serves as a deterrent for would-be fraudsters. "The Browns have been exposed for what they’ve done here."
In a signed statement included with the proposed plea agreement, 62-year-old Billy Brown said he left Alaska in 2009. In court today, McGowan said that the family ventured Outside to try and sell a book on living in the Bush. They have been calling into the Juneau hearings from Seattle.
The nature of the case -- that the family is famous for roughing it in Alaska yet has admitted to lying about residency here for multiple years -- could hurt their brand, as an added punishment, attorneys said.
“It can’t help their show judge," McGowan said.
Prosecutor Lisa Kelley said she's handled larger cases of Permanent Fund dividend theft and noted that a trial could burden the cash-strapped state.
"We are in a bit of a budget crisis in this state, and it would not be unreasonable to say we need to focus our resources the appropriate direction," she said.
The case will return to court Dec. 3.
Two members of a family that stars on the Discovery Channel show “Alaskan Bush People” have agreed to plead guilty to lying on Permanent Fund dividend applications. The family must repay the state thousands of dollars under the proposal.
Billy Brown, 62, and his son Joshua Brown, 31, agreed to repay the state for dividends they received despite failing to meet residency requirements, and to serve two years of probation, under a proposed plea agreement. They also must perform 40 hours each of community service that, a state judge emphasized, may not be filmed as part of a reality show.
“By submitting falsified PFD applications for myself and my children, I stole $7,956 from the people of Alaska,” Billy Brown wrote in a signed statement, included with the agreement.
The father and son are among six members of the Brown family who were charged last year with dozens of counts of fraud and theft. Juneau Superior Court Judge Philip Pallenberg considered the proposed plea agreement at an afternoon hearing today in Juneau.
“PFD fraud is a serious matter. It’s a theft from everybody, every resident of the state of Alaska,” Pallenberg said. “In prior cases, prior cases that involved felony convictions, I think it’s an offense that deserves jail time.”
“I think there’s a high level of community condemnation for it,” he said.
The Discovery Channel series has traded on the image of remote and uniquely Alaskan lives of the cast members.
“Deep in the Alaskan wilderness lives a newly discovered family who was born and raised wild,” Discovery announced ahead of the May 6 2014 series premiere.
“No comment,” Discovery communications director Sean Martin wrote in an email, when asked for his reaction to the indictment shortly after charges were filed.
Today, Billy Brown and Joshua Brown phoned into the Alaska criminal hearing from Seattle.
The proposal calls for each man to admit to one count of unsworn falsification, a misdemeanor. The judge has not yet decided whether to accept the agreement and will take up the matter at a second hearing tomorrow.
The charges involve family members providing false information on dividend applications that some members successfully received between 2010 and 2013.
“I left Alaska in October 2009 and did not return unitl August 2012,” Billy Brown wrote in a signed statement. “Contrary to what was stated on several Permanent Fund Dividend (PFD) applications, I did not have a ‘principal’ place of abode’ on Mossman Island during the years 2009-13.”
The agreement calls for charges against four other members of the family -- Solomon Brown, Gabriel Brown, Noah Brown and Amora Brown – to be dismissed provided they perform certain duties such as paying about $3,000 each in restitution. The charges against those family members were multiple counts each of unsworn falsification and second-degree theft.
Under the agreement, Billy Brown must pay $7,956 in restitution and would have a suspended sentence of 180 days in jail, meaning he would not do any time behind bars if he fulfills two years of probation.
Joshua Brown – who admitted to helping family members file false information on applications online -- would be required to pay $1,174 to the Permanent Fund Dividend Division.
The hearing continues at 3:30 p.m. Thursday in Juneau.