A Juneau judge rejected a plea deal Thursday that would have allowed stars from Discovery Channel's wildly popular reality television series "Alaskan Bush People" to avoid jail time for lying on applications to get the Permanent Fund dividend checks given to Alaska residents.
"There needs to be a higher punishment to act as a deterrent," said Juneau Superior Court Judge Philip Pallenberg. "If you knew you could catch everybody, maybe you wouldn't need to punish each of them as much."
Pallenberg said 30 days in jail would be appropriate for the crime, though he couldn't impose that punishment Thursday. The case against members of the Brown family will resume in early December.
With the rejection of the deal, Billy Brown, the 62-year-old patriarch of the family, and his 31-year-old son Joshua "Bam Bam" Brown also withdrew their guilty pleas. Under the proposed deal, the two men had pleaded guilty Wednesday to one misdemeanor count each of second-degree unsworn falsification. Prosecutors would have dismissed many other charges if the deal went through.
Last October, the Brown family -- Billy Brown, his wife Amora "Ami" Brown and four of their children -- were charged with a total of 60 counts of first-degree unsworn falsification and first- and second-degree theft linked to dividend applications submitted from 2010 to 2013.
Under the proposed plea deal, Billy Brown and Joshua Brown would have submitted their guilty pleas and gotten two years' probation and 40 hours of community service. Billy Brown would have paid back $7,956 in dividends and Joshua Brown would have paid back $1,174. Neither would have been able to apply for a dividend again and unless they violated their probation, they would never have gone behind bars.
Prosecutors would have also dismissed the cases against Ami Brown, 52, and three of the adult children: Solomon "Bear" Brown, 28, Gabriel "Gabe" Brown, 25, and Noah Brown, 23. But first, they would have had to each pay back nearly $3,000 in dividends and complete 20 hours of community service. None of them would have been able to apply for the dividend again.
Most Alaska residents can get a dividend -- paid for from a pool of invested oil revenue -- if they have lived in the state for at least one calendar year. Alaskans can leave the state for up to 180 days and still get the check. If they leave for longer than that, it must be for a reason like attending college, getting medical treatment or deploying with the military.
Attorneys for the Browns and for the state argued for the plea deal, saying that on top of the fines, probation and community service, the charges on their own would cast a negative light on the family -- portrayed as "born and raised wild" on "Alaskan Bush People."
"They're kind of TV stars. This exposure here is not good. It can't help their show, Judge," said James McGowan, Billy Brown's attorney, during Thursday's hearing. "I don't know if you've ever seen their show, but it's about pioneering Alaskans -- showing what it's like to live in rural Alaska -- and this case would make it look like they're not these pioneering Alaskans."
McGowan said he had received many phone calls from reporters and read comments on news articles.
"I can tell you the public is outraged," he said. "The Browns have been exposed for what they've done here."
The six members of the Brown family facing charges called into the Juneau hearing Wednesday from Seattle, but did not explain why.
The family did not say where they called in from Thursday. They only spoke when Pallenberg took roll call, their answers ranging from "Yes, sir" to "Yes, your honor" to "Present" as he called their names.
Billy and Joshua Brown admitted in statements with the proposed plea deal Wednesday to leaving Alaska in October 2009 and not returning until August 2012. At the time, they still submitted dividend applications and said they lived on Mosman Island in Southeast Alaska, the signed statements said.
McGowan said the family left Alaska in 2009 so his client could sell a book he had written about his childhood and later surviving in the Alaska wilderness.
"They ended up spending a lot more time down south," McGowan said. "That doesn't change the fact that these people are the real McCoy."
According to Fish and Game citations from earlier this year, the family previously lived in Texas and Colorado.
Jackie Lamaj, a publicity manager for Discovery Channel, declined to comment on the court case or why the Browns called into the hearing from Seattle.
"It's a legal matter, so we're not getting involved," she said.
Nearly 5 million people tuned into the season premiere of "Alaskan Bush People" last week, which follows the lives of Billy, Ami and their seven children, according to Discovery Channel.
In the episode that started season three, summer had begun in Southeast Alaska, the family tried to resolve a lack of lumber and Ami Brown headed to Juneau for medical treatment with Billy Brown and their three youngest children.
On the show, the Brown family reportedly lives outside Hoonah. They previously lived on a boat in Ketchikan until it sank. Before that, they lived off the Richardson Highway in Copper River country when the show first aired in May 2014.
Julie Willoughby, the attorney for Ami Brown, said her client understands the dividend fraud case has gotten a lot of publicity and negative consequences will accompany that.
But she said Brown considers herself an Alaskan and worries about her husband. She wants to put the case behind her, Willoughby said.
"She and the other family members are very concerned about Mr. Brown's health and the toll that this is taking on him," Willoughby said.
Assistant Attorney General Lisa Kelley of the state Office of Special Prosecutions and Appeals said during the hearing she needed to address "the elephant in the room" and then talked about the state's budget crisis to support her argument for the plea deal.
She said that while dividend fraud affects every Alaskan, it doesn't have a significant impact on every Alaskan. The Brown case is not the largest one she has ever dealt with, she said. The Browns have agreed to pay back the money and two people had pleaded guilty.
"It would not be unreasonable to say that we need to focus our resources in the appropriate direction," she said.
She also said the state's case against the Browns is not based on documents or records, but on the testimony of witnesses, which could pose issues if it goes to trial.
Near the end of the hearing, Pallenberg calculated how much the Browns had taken from each Alaskan. They had gotten about $20,938 in dividends by lying on their applications, he said. He then divided that number by 631,000 Alaskans. The solution: about three cents.
"On one level that just seems trivial; who cares about three pennies? You could find three pennies if you walk down the street," he said. "But if you multiply 3.3 pennies by 631,000 Alaskans, you get a lot of money."
Pallenberg said he could not make a decision based on public pressure or how much media attention a case has received.
"If somebody who's living in a trailer stole $2,000 in merchandise from Walmart, that person would get jail time," he said. "If somebody's who's struggling to get by stole someone's purse and used their debit card to run up $1,000 (or) $2,000 worth of bills that came out of somebody's checking account -- they would get jail time."
He said the Browns should not be treated more harshly because of their television show. But they shouldn't be treated more leniently either.
At the status hearing in early December, the parties will tell the court how they want to move forward, Pallenberg said.
"I think everything's up in the air and we'll come back in a couple weeks and figure out how to proceed," he said.
McGowan said that before the plea agreement was entered, a judge had already dismissed the indictments against Billy and Ami Brown. A motion to dismiss the charges against the four children is pending, Pallenberg said.
Prosecutors have to decide whether to refile charges against the Browns or seek new indictments, he said.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing