60-Year Prison Sentence Reinstated in Fraud Case

By MICHAEL KUNZELMAN | March 16, 2012

The Louisiana Supreme Court has reinstated a 60-year prison sentence for a former Alabama state legislator who pleaded guilty to stealing more than $250,000 from Hurricane Katrina victims in New Orleans after they paid him for modular homes he never delivered.

The court ruled Tuesday that Orleans Parish District Judge Darryl Derbigny didn’t abuse his discretion in sentencing John Colvin, 63, of Rainbow City, Ala., in 2010.

Last year, a state appeals court vacated Colvin’s sentence as excessive. At the time of Colvin’s sentencing, a spokesman for Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro said it was one of the longest prison sentences for contractor fraud in Louisiana history.

Colvin’s six victims included elderly residents whose homes were demolished by the 2005 storm. Prosecutors said he never delivered any of the modular homes he sold. Much of the stolen money had been awarded to the victims through the state’s Road Home grant program.

Colvin pleaded guilty in November 2009 to six counts of felony theft. Several Alabama politicians, including then-Lt. Gov. Jim Folsom Jr., had written letters to Derbigny, asking for leniency. But the judge sentenced Colvin to the maximum 10 years in prison per count and ordered them to be served consecutively.

Colvin was elected to Alabama’s House of Representatives in 1989 in a special election, but defeated a year later when he ran for a full term. His attorneys didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment Wednesday.

The Supreme Court said it was “open to considerable doubt” whether Colvin fully accepted responsibility for the victims’ losses and was committed to making restitution.

Derbigny justified his decision to consider Colvin “an exceptional risk to public safety for whom consecutive sentences are appropriate because he had preyed systematically on distressed homeowners attempting to rebuild their lives in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and he was good at it,” the court’s opinion says.

Willie King, whose parents paid Colvin $43,200 before he disappeared, testified at his sentencing that the unlicensed contractor “had this knack about invoking his mother and God.”

“Willie King recalled that when his parents, both in their late 70s, decided to sign the contract, they all stood around a table and prayed ‘that God guide his hands to finish my parents’ home,”‘ the court said.

Colvin was arrested in Alabama and brought back to Louisiana to face the charges. His attorneys argued that the crimes resulted from business ineptitude and only caused economic harm that could be repaid, but Derbigny wasn’t swayed by their request for leniency.

“I find the behavior unconscionable and, yes, predatory and deeply offensive,” the judge told Colvin, according to Tuesday’s opinion. “ou’ve not only taken their money from them, you’ve not only deprived them of the homes that they dreamed to be able to return to, but you’ve taken their dreams. You’ve taken their health in some instances.”

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