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U-T editor claims his letter in support of Wade Sanders was changed before reaching the judge; defense attorney refutes claim

May 4, 2009 - 7:05 pm

I went down to the federal courthouse today to witness the sentencing of Wade Sanders, the former deputy assistant U.S. Secretary of the Navy who pleaded guilty to child-porn charges, but given that the case has received lots of attention and was one of numerous cases on the docket this afternoon, there wasn’t an empty seat in the courtroom a half-hour before the sentencing hearing was set to start.

As I waited in vain in the hall for a seat to become available, a purple-clad woman with Crocs on her feet approached me, opened an envelope and produced a couple of letters. One was a handwritten note to Judge Thomas J. Whelan, signed by Bernie Jones, editor of the Union-Tribune‘s Opinion section. Jones was among numerous luminaries who’d written a letter urging a lenient sentence for Sanders. The handwritten note bearing his signature asserted that the letter from him that was included in the court record was different than the one he’d sent to Sanders. The second letter produced by the purple woman in Crocs was a typed letter, also bearing Jones’ signature and addressed to Judge Whelan; this one was a copy of the letter Jones claims was sent to Sanders.

In the typed letter I saw at the courthouse, Jones says:

“While you, as a judge, have an obligation to protect society, I am not certain what protections will be rendered by a long period of incarceration.” (Emphasis added.)

In the letter that was provided to the court by Sanders’ attorney, Knut Johnson, Jones says:

“While you, as a judge, have an obligation to protect society, I am not certain what protections will be rendered by any period of incarceration or sex offender registration for Wade.” (Emphasis added.)

The difference, obviously, is that the letter Jones says he wrote argues against a “long” term behind bars while the letter that Judge Whelan received argues against any time behind bars and sex-offender status.

While at the courthouse, I sent a text to CityBeat staff writer Eric Wolff, asking him to call Jones to confirm that he believes his letter was altered. Jones left Wolff a message saying the letter was changed “and that’s all I know.” When I returned to the office, I called Jones and left a message, but he hasn’t called back.

I then contacted Johnson, Sanders’ attorney, who said Jones’ claim of letter-alteration came as a surprise. Johnson insisted that the letter that he provided to the judge, a copy of the original, was identical to a fax that he received from Jones. Johnson e-mailed me two letters that he said are a copy of the original and a fax, and they are identical, but the fax doesn’t reveal the sender. [See update below.] Johnson said he threw away the fax cover sheet, which he said was from the Union-Tribune.

The purple woman in Crocs, a strident activist named Bonnie Russell who’s attempting to expose perceived injustices in the divorce industry—here is her website—told me that Jones told her on the phone last night that he’d received some negative reaction in the wake of a Sunday Union-Tribune news story on the Sanders case that included this sentence:

“Bernie Jones, the Opinion page editor of The San Diego Union-Tribune, where numerous commentaries by Sanders have been published over the years, also wrote a letter opposing a prison term.”

In a later phone conversation, Russell told me that before today’s hearing, she had given Jones’ handwritten note to the prosecutor, presumably Assistant U.S. Attorney Alessandra Serano, but after the hearing, the prosecutor confessed to Russell that she had forgotten to submit it to the court. Russell said, however, that she then saw the prosecutor provide the note to the court clerk. Russell said she had driven to Jones’ office before the hearing to pick up the note from Jones.

Someone isn’t telling the truth. Unless I’m missing something here, either the Sanders camp altered Jones’ letter without telling him, or—assuming Jones’ note made its way into the record—Jones, through Russell, has lied to a federal court judge.

Update: In this story, I reported that the fax copy of Jones’ letter provided to me by Johnson doesn’t reveal the sender. I reported that because I immediately printed the document without inspecting it on-screen. The printed copy does not reveal the sender, but the on-screen version does—it says “Mar-11-2009 09:44 San Diego Union-Tribune.” It didn’t occur to me that a PDF of a fax wouldn’t print that fax details.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Jake permalink
    May 4, 2009 - 7:43 pm 7:43 pm

    What’s your take on Judge Whelan sentence of three years and one month in prison. Prosecutors sought more than five years.

  2. May 4, 2009 - 8:05 pm 8:05 pm

    Guess Dave forgot my brown blouse. In fairness, I guess I’ll mention since Dave was attired in “Camp wear; Day 2.”

    However, I will take exception to the Crocs. (In the interest of fairness it’s possible Dave could have possibly wandered off and missed my complimenting one woman’s lovely stilettos…adding after two shattered femurs in an 18 month period, my stiletto days are completely, over.)

    Also in fairness to me, an observant reporter missed the limp?

    Now we come to Dave’s memory. Not so good. Dave asked to see the letter, so I ankled over to him at his request. Strident activist?

    I think the below speaks for itself.

    and, the follow up.

    San Diego remains no place for children. As Dave’s already admitted the possibility of missing something, the larger picture strikes me as one of the things Dave’s missing.

    Here’s the first report. Six years in the making. Mother was demonized.

    Peace out.

  3. David Rolland permalink*
    May 4, 2009 - 8:08 pm 8:08 pm

    Jake, I’m not sure what I think about that. There are too many people in prison, I know that — so I think only antisocial people who need to be separated from the rest of us should be put behind bars. Others should be given alternative types of punishment. The question I don’t know the answer to is whether or not people who like child porn are truly dangerous. Surely, the people who provide the content are committing violence against the children in the photos and videos. I suppose that means the people who are viewing it are creating the demand and are indirectly dangerous. Perhaps the threat of prison time reduces the demand? I kind of doubt it.

  4. David Rolland permalink*
    May 4, 2009 - 8:19 pm 8:19 pm

    Bonnie, it’s your memory that’s bad. A man asked me if I was part of the Sanders crew. I said, “No, I’m press.” Then you asked what press I was with. I said, “CityBeat.” Then, later, you approached me and showed me what you had in the envelope. Why would ask to see a letter I wasn’t even aware existed? Now, after you showed it to me the first time, I later asked you to show it to me again.

    As for the Crocs — not a judgment, just an observation.

    But I have to give you the “Camp wear; Day 2” comment. That’s pretty funny.

    As for missing the larger picture, as you call it, that’s not the story I was reporting.

  5. May 4, 2009 - 8:49 pm 8:49 pm


    Nice try, but no dice. The entire Sanders crew arrived jeweled and suited up. It was obvious you weren’t with them. You specifically asked to see the note and I obliged. Then I asked for it back.

  6. David Rolland permalink*
    May 4, 2009 - 9:04 pm 9:04 pm

    Bonnie, my version of what transpired is accurate. Are you suggesting that I, out of the blue, asked you what was inside your envelope? If so, you’re nuts. You obviously knew I wasn’t with Sanders, but the man next to you didn’t, because he asked me if I was. That’s how you knew I was a reporter, and that’s why you showed me the letters.

    The point we’re arguing is irrelevant, except that you’re calling my memory into question, which is annoying. I stand sturdily by my version, and I’ll leave it at that.

  7. May 4, 2009 - 9:36 pm 9:36 pm

    You’re right, according to you. I have a different opinion and also am not likely to agree with your idea of relevant – especially since you’ve demonstrated you believe name-calling is relevant. I won’t ask whether you make it a habit of calling people ‘nuts’ who don’t agree with you, but I will offer that in many year of working with reporters, I have noticed they tend to report, not attack. The short version being professionalism is their strong suit.

  8. Watch Your Words permalink
    May 5, 2009 - 4:41 pm 4:41 pm

    Refute (ri-fyoot) vt. 1. to prove (a person) to be wrong; confute 2. to prove (an argument or statement) to be false or wrong, by argument or evidence
    Did the attorney refute Mr. Jones’ claim, or merely dispute it?

  9. David Rolland permalink*
    May 5, 2009 - 4:55 pm 4:55 pm

    I’m sure Mr. Johnson would say he has refuted the claim, but I meant dispute. Good catch.

  10. Josie permalink
    May 6, 2009 - 11:46 pm 11:46 pm

    Mr. Rolland…
    You asked….
    “The question I don’t know the answer to is whether or not people who like child porn are truly dangerous”.

    The answer is yes.
    I am a casual observer of this case. I do not know Mr. Sanders, and I do not have time to scour new stories….I mostly peruse headlines. This story caught my attention because of the willingness of elected officials, power players, and (indeed) media pundits such as newspaper executives to defend Mr. Sanders outrageous and illegal behavior.

    I do know (in my average citizen’s view) that there is no such thing as an innocent reason to search out child pornography, unless you are an investigating official on an assignment.

    Mr. Sanders defense lawyers explanation of his on line activity was so ridiculous that it was embarrassing. Perhaps Mr. Sander’s PTSD resulted in his newfound appreciation for undressed children, but it certainly did not pan out as an attempt to research their predicament. Then again, I am just an average person reading (with incredulity) the entire scenario. Still, I smell a rat.

    My question is this: why the need to circle the wagons?

    I would like the 50 or so elected officials/corporate executives/community leaders that endorsed a lighter sentence for Mr. Sanders to explain themselves to me. The disposition to protect the powerful at the expense of the proletariat…our children, for God’s sake, is why I left the Catholic Church.

    As for your discussion with Ms. Russell on sensible footwear and questionable correspondence……

    I see a lot of back peddling going on…..

    Just who is recanting what doesn’t really matter at this point.

    “Are our children safe?” is the only real issue that I see here.

    Sorry that I didn’t send this in to the Op page of the UT. I only get weekend delivery, and I rarely have time to read it, much less respond.

    Just happened across this page as I did a search to see if Mr. Sanders got his sentence, or if his homies helped him get off the hook.

    Mary Joe Heath

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