The former police chief who described himself as "the best cop money can buy" ended his sentencing hearing Friday by asking the judge if he can take theology and culinary arts classes in prison.
Donald Abraham Solomon, 57, who worked as a medic and police officer before rising to chief in East Washington during a 37-year career, now faces a sentence of 11 years and 3 months for three counts of extortion.
During a lengthy, two-part sentencing hearing before U.S. District Judge Joy Flowers Conti, Solomon's attorney sought a five-year sentence, arguing that he was lured into crime by an FBI sting that preyed upon his money problems. But prosecutors said the evidence was overwhelming that Solomon was happy to stand guard while FBI agents who he believed were drug dealers trafficked in 14 faux kilograms of cocaine, and to sell them Tasers that were meant for law enforcement only.
"You have a chief of police of a community willing to take money from what he believes to be a drug dealer," said Judge Conti, noting that if the cocaine were real it would have been "devastating to the community."
The sentence, she said, is "a strong message to anyone in law enforcement: If you want to help the drug dealers, you're going to do serious time."
Much was made during the sentencing process, which began with an initial hearing a month ago, of the $30,800 the FBI paid to a confidential informant for work done on this and other cases over 17 months. U.S. attorney David Hickton said that was nothing but a defense attorney's "very, very fine lawyering" in the face of "an airtight case."
"We don't identify public corruption targets," Mr. Hickton said. "They identify themselves. And when they identify themselves, we follow the evidence where it leads us."
The FBI began investigating Solomon after a friend of his, who had previously worked for the bureau as a modestly paid informant, told them that the chief had mentioned the possibility of transporting cocaine for an acquaintance from West Virginia, and discussed obtaining silencers. The FBI then wired the informant's phone, and at times the informant himself, with audio and sometimes video recording equipment. Evidence suggested that Solomon asked a friend to shoot up the car of a romantic rival, and mused about how nice it would be if a borough councilman were assassinated.
Assistant federal public defender Marketa Sims argued that the payments to the informant, and the FBI's subsequent decision to hire him at more than $40,000 a year, nixed the evidentiary value of the recordings.
Ms. Sims called the source "a professional informant."
FBI Special Agent Lawrence O'Connor, though, testified that the informant was "prior military, and he said that since he was discharged from the military he wanted to figure out a way to continue to carry out his patriotic duty." He would have informed without the compensation, the agent said.
Ms. Sims eventually conceded that the evidence gathered by the informant was admissible. She maintained, though, that Solomon was ensnared and became too frightened to back out because an undercover FBI agent "portrayed himself as extremely violent. ... He talked about feeding people to the fishes."
Mr. Hickton countered that Solomon "committed any number of criminal acts in pursuit of the sale of his office. Mr. Solomon indicated when asked whether it was OK to go forward [with the second faux drug deal]... 'Hell, yeah.' "
"It was clear that he was voluntarily engaging in that behavior," Mr. Hickton said after the hearing. Solomon apologized to the court, the prosecutors, the FBI, fellow law enforcement workers and his three children. "They're the ones I've hurt the most," he said.
He asked to be imprisoned near Pittsburgh, to be allowed to study theology and cooking, and to join the prison ministry program. Judge Conti said she'd recommend all of those things, and made the unusual decision, in a case with a sentence this long, to allow him to go home until the Bureau of Prisons decides where to hold him.
The sentence is at the bottom of the range recommended for Solomon's crimes under federal guidelines.
Ms. Sims argued that Solomon's life in law enforcement should be rewarded with a lower sentence. When all of her legal arguments failed, she confessed bewilderment at the contrast between the mild-mannered chief who remained amiable throughout numerous court appearances, and the foul-mouthed roughneck captured on tape fantasizing about killing an ex-girlfriend and volunteering that he was "the best cop money can buy."
"We've had conversations about depression. We've had conversations about the devil," she said of her talks with her client. "I don't think I'll ever truly understand what brought Donny Solomon to this point."
Rich Lord: email@example.com, 412-263-1542 and on Twitter: @richelord. First Published June 14, 2013 12:30 AM