Boston developer Arthur Winn was fined $100,000, but avoided prison time at his sentencing yesterday in US District Court for illegally funneling thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to politicians to gain support for his ultimately failed Columbus Center development.
The sentence was far less severe than prosecutors wanted. Assistant US Attorney Ryan DiSantis asked for a $200,000 fine and six months in prison, arguing that Winn’s illegal conduct was an “affront to the Democratic system.’’
But US Chief Magistrate Judith G. Dein said Winn did not deserve jail time because he only pleaded guilty to a pair of misdemeanor crimes for $4,500 in illegal contributions to US Representatives Michael E. Capuano and Stephen F. Lynch.
Winn, the 72-year-old former chairman of WinnCompanies, had admitted to illegal giving on a much larger scale - about $64,000 in contributions to an array of politicians at local, state, and federal levels. But most of those donations fell outside the statute of limitations or could not be prosecuted in federal court because they were not made to candidates for federal offices.
The donations were against the law because Winn convinced family members to give to his favored candidates, and then secretly reimbursed them to hide the source of the money.
Prior to Dein pronouncing her sentence at the John Joseph Moakley Courthouse, Winn stood before a courtroom packed with relatives, friends, and other supporters and apologized.
“I broke the campaign contributions law,’’ he said. “I caused a great deal of hurt for my family and friends. I am ashamed to have reimbursed my family for contributions I asked them to make. I was wrong, and, of course, if I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t have [done it].’’
Yesterday’s sentencing brought an end to years of controversy swirling around Winn and his proposal to build Columbus Center, which was envisioned as a towering complex of luxury condominiums, a hotel, and stores over the Massachusetts Turnpike between the South End and Back Bay neighborhoods. The development stirred community opposition, largely because he wanted to subsidize the $800 million cost with taxpayer money.
Prosecutors said in court documents that Winn’s illegal giving increased as he sought - and received - tens of millions of dollars in grants, low-cost loans, tax credits, and other assistance. The money was never spent because Columbus Center stalled amid the economic downturn in 2007 and failed to move forward.
In addition to Lynch and Capuano, recipients of Winn’s illegal giving included former Governor Mitt Romney, US Senator John F. Kerry, US Representative Edward J. Markey, and disgraced state senator Dianne Wilkerson - a major Columbus Center supporter who is serving a 3 1/2-year prison sentence on unrelated bribery charges - among others.
None of the recipients was charged with wrongdoing.
After the sentencing, Winn’s lawyers said it was fair given the facts of the case and Winn’s admission to only misdemeanors. “It puts to an end all the drumbeating about political corruption and influence peddling,’’ said R. Robert Popeo, one of his lawyers. “That was never part of this case.’’
Winn’s lawyers argued that the illegal giving paled in comparison to the massive amounts being given to current candidates for political offices around the country, making specific mention of the $5 million contributions made to Republican Newt Gingrich recently by casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and his wife. Unlike Winn’s giving, no one is alleging that the Adelson contributions violated any laws.
Winn’s lawyers also said their client has suffered enough, noting that his wife has left him and that Winn stepped down from the development company he founded.
DiSantis, the assistant US attorney, declined to comment following Dein’s ruling. In court, he said Winn’s illegal giving was part of shrewd strategy to secretly tilt public decision-making in his favor. “Mr. Winn’s crimes were deliberate, systematic, and sustained’’ between 2001 and 2009, he said. “The sustained nature of the crime is very telling.’’
He added that Winn should be given prison time to send a message to others that such conduct will not be tolerated.
Dein said a $100,000 fine was enough to show that such crimes are taken seriously. She also said she did not put Winn on probation because the “personal angst and humiliation’’ he suffered during the case were sufficient to keep him from re-offending.
Casey Ross can be reached at email@example.com.