FCA scandal figure latest to seek prison break amid virus outbreak
A former Fiat Chrysler Automobiles executive convicted in a widespread bribery scandal involving the United Auto Workers wants early release from federal prison due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Fiat Chrysler financial analyst Jerome Durden, who helped control the finances at the UAW-Chrysler National Training Center, asked U.S. District Judge Paul Borman on Friday for early release despite serving a fraction of his 15-month federal prison sentence.
Durden, 64, of Rochester wants to spend the last five months on home confinement and cites several risk factors that leave him susceptible to a virus that has raised concerns about the vulnerability of inmates and staff kept in close quarters. He is serving the sentence at a federal prison in Milan.
The request is the latest sign of the impact coronavirus is having on the nation's federal court system and the most recent among several attempts by high-profile defendants in criminal cases to avoid imprisonment during the pandemic.
Durden does not qualify for home confinement and prosecutors oppose his request, according to a federal court filing Friday. But defense lawyer Judith Gracey said there are "extraordinary circumstances" that warrant Durden's release.
She cited Centers for Disease Control and Prevention research that shows older adults with serious chronic medical conditions are more likely to contract coronavirus and potentially die. Durden suffers from Type 2 diabetes and hypertension, Gracey wrote.
"...if defendant remains incarcerated, he is at a higher risk to contract COVID-19 and pass it on to other inmates," Gracey wrote. "...if the defendant acquires the virus while incarcerated, he is at risk for possibly fatal outcomes that could be better treated if he is granted home confinement."
Durden was portrayed as a pivotal figure in the auto industry corruption scandal, helping funnel illegal payments to UAW officials involved in a labor conspiracy. He helped control the finances of a training center and was the first person charged in an ongoing prosecution that has led to 13 convictions.
Durden was sentenced for filing misleading tax returns that concealed the labor conspiracy and helping steer more than $386,400 to the late UAW Vice President General Holiefield's phony charity, the Leave the Light On Foundation.
While reviewing financial records, investigators kept noticing Durden's name on documents, a sign he was "moving money around" illegally, Assistant U.S. Attorney Erin Shaw said in court two years ago.
"He made bad decisions over, and over and over again," Shaw said.
Yet Durden had spent the previous three years cooperating with prosecutors, help that shortened a potential three-year prison sentence.
The outbreak, meanwhile, has delayed several high-profile criminal cases in federal court and prompted requests from numerous defendants seeking to delay or terminate prison sentences.
Former UAW President Gary Jones was scheduled to plead guilty Thursday to embezzlement, racketeering and a tax crime but received a two-week delay until April 2 due to concerns about traveling to Detroit during the outbreak.
On Thursday, James Warner, a former Detroit Metropolitan Airport supervisor sentenced to 10 years after being convicted of receiving more than $6 million in bribes asked permission to stay out of prison due to the coronavirus pandemic and pending his appeal.
U.S. District Judge Victoria Roberts granted that request Friday.
Also Friday, a judge delayed the May corruption trial of former Macomb Township Trustee Dino Bucci after a request that cited the former politician's health problems.
"(Bucci's) serious medical issues, including diabetes and multiple strokes, puts him in the high-risk category of citizens whose lives are in even more danger than the average citizen, should he be infected with the virus," according to a court filing Friday.
Bucci, who is facing bribery, extortion, fraud, theft and money laundering charges, will stand trial in June.
“During the pandemic, our office will continue to investigate and prosecute cases, particularly those involving violent and dangerous criminals," U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider wrote in an email to The Detroit News on Friday. "We also plan to go after scammers who exploit the coronavirus to cheat people. Our job is to protect the public, and we will not abandon our duty to preserve public safety during these challenging times."
Federal courthouses are operating under restricted conditions. Last week, court officials curtailed activities at the five federal courts in Detroit, Ann Arbor, Port Huron, Flint and Bay City.
All civil and criminal matters scheduled for in-court appearances, and grand jury proceedings, were postponed indefinitely.
"There may be other cases that we will seek to adjourn, and we occasionally delay cases for a variety of reasons," Schneider said. "Some cases, for example, were slightly delayed during the government shutdown last year. So far, all of the case adjournments as a result of the coronavirus have been ordered by judges in accordance with the court’s administrative order.”