Man convicted in kickback scheme seeking bail until appeal

Monday, November 19, 2012

Jason P. Mitchell, a 36-year-old Jackson man convicted of a $500,000 kickback scheme in June, has asked the state's highest court to free him on bail while a lower court reconsiders his conviction.

Mitchell has been incarcerated at the state prison in Bonne Terre, Mo., for a few months, but a local judge's 15-year sentence will keep him there much longer unless the Missouri Court of Appeals overturns the conviction. Cape Girardeau lawyer Steve Wilson is working to secure Mitchell's release until the court makes its ruling.

Such bonds are rare, Wilson agreed Saturday, but not impossible.

"Just in case we win the appeal, why should he just sit in prison?" Wilson asked.

State courts have the discretion to set bail after a conviction, but the requirements are stricter because defendants no longer carry the presumption of innocence. Judges also are asked to consider the merits of the appeal, as well as whether those found guilty are dangerous or a flight risk.

In an Oct. 16 filing with the Missouri Supreme Court, Wilson argued that none of those factors are true of Mitchell, who has no prior criminal record, strong ties to the community and a home and family in Jackson.

Two lower courts and Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster already disagreed. Koster's filing specifically mentions that the large sum of money was not recovered, giving Mitchell the means to run. A looming 15-year sentence also makes the risk of flight more likely, he said.

Judge William Syler, who presided at Mitchell's jury trial in Jackson, was the first to deny a bond motion after his conviction.

On Saturday, Syler said it would be inappropriate to comment on the case because the appellate courts could return it to his courtroom. But Syler said such bonds are not common and he did not believe he had granted 10 of them in his 20 years on the bench.

Mitchell maintains his innocence, Wilson said. But a jury believed otherwise, deliberating three hours before returning with a guilty verdict. Jurors believed those witnesses who said Mitchell had hatched a plan to funnel money when he was purchasing manager at the DeWitt Co., a landscaping materials manufacturer in Sikeston, Mo.

By the time he was caught, witnesses said in court, he had siphoned off enough money from the company to live a lavish lifestyle that belied his $90,000-a-year salary. A former co-worker, testifying at trial, said he heard Mitchell speak of plans for a new house and saw him drive to work in a Maserati.

"I wasn't getting a bonus," the employee said. "Then, when I found out, I saw where my bonus was going."

Mitchell's scheme, which involved two other men, called for offering to buy exclusively from one client in exchange for a kickback of about 3 percent per sale. Mitchell's bosses wanted him to put the purchases to bid in an attempt to control costs. Mitchell brought on the company's chief financial officer, Rick Potter, to set up fraudulent bank accounts. The client, Rajiv M. Toprani of Clarksville, Tenn., made more than 40 deposits to those accounts that some believe totaled closer to $1 million, though prosecutors could only prove half that amount.

Potter and Toprani agreed to testify against Mitchell and neither were charged.

At least one other person would like Mitchell to stay where he is. Meredith DeWitt is the company's vice president who watched her father, Larry, build DeWitt Co. from the ground up to one that likely will top $27 million in sales this year. She said that the betrayal was deep, considering that her parents raised Mitchell's wife after her parents died. Mitchell's wife has never apologized, she said.

Larry DeWitt took Mitchell in and gave him a good job, despite not having a college degree. His salary also was higher, she said, than it would have been if her father hadn't liked and trusted Mitchell.

It was her father who learned Mitchell had been stealing from the company through an email that came a short time after Mitchell left the company to start his own. She says she now knows he was skimming company profits.

"We are recovering, but it's slow," Meredith DeWitt said. "We are having a hard time trusting. We're going to be OK. But do I think Jason Mitchell should be walking around a free man? No. I don't."

smoyers@semissourian.com

388-3642

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