Former San Joaquin Sheriff Baxter Dunn tries to clear his name

6:17 PM, Apr 19, 2011   |    comments
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Baxter Dunn

STOCKTON, CA - Six years ago, Baxter Dunn, the sheriff of San Joaquin County, found himself charged with corruption. Now he's trying to clear his name.

Dunn and co-defendant Allen Sawyer were indicted in a federal court for a form of corruption. Dunn said at the time he was trying to move a power plant to the Port of Stockton - a move that would have put $100,000 to $1 million in his pocket.

"We wanted to do a straight-up business deal. We believed all along we were doing a straight-up business deal and we never had any intent to violate the law," Dunn said.

"One of the things you need (for the plant) is a source of water, electricity and natural gas and those were the things we could do together on behalf of this company - and be compensated for it."

It was the compensation that got Dunn in trouble, temporarily anyway.

Federal prosecutors said Dunn was involved in a type of corruption that had him using his office for his own agenda.

The charge forced him to resign from the county's top cop job.

"At the time of that prosecution, honest services fraud was a legitimate theory of prosecution and they accused him and others of pretending to work in the public interest when in fact they were working for themselves," said former prosecutor Bill Portonova.

In a plea deal with prosecutors, Dunn pleaded guilty. He says even though he did nothing wrong, he didn't want to risk a trial.

"I had spent $300,000 in attorney's fees and hadn't got to the trial yet and I was tapped out," Dunn said.

The plea agreement called for six months in prison.

"I can't say they're weren't dark moments," he said. "I was sitting there thinking, 'What did I do to deserve this?'"

Contrary to what might be expected, Dunn's celebrity inside the prison helped. He said his experiences helped him survive.

"I knew what to expect, I knew how to behave, I kept a low key, It was, of course, difficult being away from my family."

After serving his sentences, Dunn was released. He tried to live a normal life with his tarnished reputation - then in April of this year, everything changed.

A high court ruled on a similar case and changed the definition of honest services fraud. That decision exonerated Dunn of the charge.

"In all fairness, if the U.S. Supreme Court says what they did is not a crime, we have to accept that," said Portanova. "It is not a crime. It was only a crime because the government said it was; now the government says it's not. We have to take them at their word."

"Would I do again? At this point, going through it, I have no interest in it," Dunn said.

By Nick Monacelli,


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