Update: Some of what I write in this post is not true. The candidate has, in fact, spoken publicly about his past. Please see the following correction for the full story and my apology.
The other day I got a tip. It was about a candidate for the legislature who had supposedly been charged in another state with running an investment scam, pled guilty to a reduced charge, and served time in prison. Since his release, he has apparently kept his nose clean. Indeed, he became something of an inmates’ rights activist.
He later moved to Vermont, where he has continued on the straight and narrow. He’s now running for State House. He hasn’t revealed his criminal past, nor has anyone reported it, although it can be found through a simple Google search.
The story is more complicated than the original tip would suggest. And I pondered whether I should let it alone. After all, he seems to have reformed himself, and everyone deserves a second chance.
In the end, after much thought, I decided to write this post. The deciding factors: His offense was a serious one — he was accused of bilking investors of as much as $150,000. This happened relatively recently, roughly ten years ago. He was under court order to repay his victims, and as far as I can tell he has failed to do so. And he has not revealed his troubles; his campaign bio carefully omits any hint of his criminal offense and incarceration, even as it trumpets his advocacy for inmates’ rights.
My conclusion: His offense doesn’t disqualify him from public service, but the voters deserve to know and have the opportunity to make their own judgments. It appears to me that the candidate could tell a powerful and believable story of redemption. But he needs to explain why he deserves the public’s trust.
The candidate in question is Janssen Willhoit, Republican hopeful for the State House in St. Johnsbury. His story:
In June 2004, Willhoit was arrested on charges of “theft by deception.” His victims included the mayor of Stanford, Kentucky. The details:
The investment scam was first reported by Stanford Mayor Eddie Carter, said [Stanford police detective Rick] Edwards. Carter had reportedly invested more than $50,000 of his personal money with Willhoit’s false company, Net City. Net City, which promised investors high interest rates, was supposedly a subsidiary of National City Bank. But when Carter called to check on his account, he was told the number was a phony.
… False investment paperwork had lulled the victims into trusting Net City by indicating the company was a affiliated with Met Life Insurance companies and of legitimate financial protection companies, Securities Investor Protection Corp. and NASD. Officials from the bank and Met Life confirmed that Net City was never an associate during that time, police report.
… Investors’ cash is thought to have been used to support Willhoit’s comfortable lifestyle before his arrest.
In August, Mayor Carter filed a civil suit against Willhoit. He quickly won, and was awarded $55,000 in restitution and damages.
In November 2004, Willhoit agreed to a plea deal that would have let him avoid prison if he repaid his victims. The first step in that process was to post a $10,000 bond, followed by monthly payments of $600.
But in December, he was back in court:
Janssen Willhoit, 25, who swindled approximately $95,000 from three Stanford residents through a phony company, was sentenced to 10 years in prison with the possibility of shock probation.
… Willhoit faced Circuit Judge Robert Gillum without having paid the promised money. Both the judge and Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Daryl Day expressed their frustration with the development.
“He doesn’t have the $10,000,” said [defense attorney Mitchell] Berryman. “It leaves us in a quandary.”
“It doesn’t leave me in a quandary,” Gillum said. “I guess he’s going to serve some time then. He’s obviously not going to meet the conditions of probation… He lied to the court.”
In February 2005 Willhoit was back before Judge Gillum to request “shock probation,” which is sometimes granted inmates — usually first-time offenders — after they’ve been in prison for a short time. The idea is that being behind bars might “shock” a person into changing his ways. But the judge wasn’t buying it.
Lincoln Circuit Judge Robert Gillum, who handed down Willhoit’s sentence last year, again had stern words for the swindler. Gillum said Willhoit lied to the court in the past by promising to, but not posting, a $10,000 bail to be used as restitution money. Gillum said Willhoit was a flight risk, despite his claims otherwise, and denied the motion.
Willhoit went back to prison. I haven’t been able to determine exactly when he was released. He was definitely out no later than 2009; in February 2010 he testified before a state legislative committee in favor of a bill to allow former inmates to regain their voting rights. He described himself as a former inmate. (Accompanying image is from the video of his testimony.)
Later that year he moved to Vermont and began studies at Vermont Law School. After graduating, he moved to St. Johnsbury and joined the law firm of Willey & Power.
Earlier this year, Willhoit launched a campaign for State House. In the August primary, he came in second in a three-way race for two Republican nominations, advancing him to the November election.
Willhoit’s campaign bio barely mentions his life before 2010. It does boast of his volunteer efforts after Tropical Storm Irene, his work as a public defender in the Northeast Kingdom, his active membership in a local church, and his work mentoring prisoners.
It also proclaims his commitment “to serving the least among us” without ever mentioning that he used to be one of the least among us.
As I said earlier, I don’t believe that Willhoit’s criminal past or his apparent failure to make restitution should disqualify him from the Legislature. (Insert snide comment about the probity of State House denizens here.) But the people of St. Johnsbury should know about it, and he should fully explain the circumstances of his offense, whether he has repaid his victims, and if not, why not. After that, the voters can make an informed choice.