Jason Halek wandered in and out of Bismarck on Wednesday. He wasn’t all that excited about being here, and I’m pretty sure he didn’t stick around to visit with old friends, instead likely heading back to Texas to sell some more used cars. For a couple more months.
I wrote about Halek last month, after his lawyer negotiated a plea agreement with the U.S. government in the matter of violations of the U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act. He is responsible for dumping 800,000 gallons of poisonous oilfield brine down an abandoned well south of Dickinson, N.D., about five years ago.
And even though the lawyers had done their work, the federal court system requires that everyone line up in front of a judge and get that plea agreement on the record before the judge hands down a sentence. That formal “plea hearing” took place in Judge Daniel Hovland’s courtroom Wednesday.
I don’t spend much time in courtrooms, so it was kind of an interesting experience for me. I was the only spectator, the only person in the room not involved in the proceedings. The North Dakota media has studiously avoided covering this case, in spite of the fact that it has been labeled by government attorneys as the most serious safe drinking water case in North Dakota since the oil boom began. You can read the background on this case here, in case you’re new to the coverage on my blog.
The huge courtroom with the towering ceilings has very poor acoustics, and I don’t hear all that well, so I’m going to describe the proceedings as best I can, but keep in mind, these are not actually direct quotes, just a pretty good summary of what took place.
When I arrived, Judge Hovland had just finished up another sentencing case, so he was already on the bench. Three government attorneys, led by Christopher Costantini from the U.S. Justice Department in Washington, D.C., who I am told, is one of the leading environmental prosecutors in America, entered the courtroom first. They were greeted by Judge Hovland, who said “Welcome to the wild, wild west.” To which Costantini replied, “Thank you, Your Honor.”
Halek’s attorney, Alex Reichert of Grand Forks, came in next, followed shortly by Halek himself. This was the first time I had seen Halek in person. I would describe him as a hipster, in today’s parlance. He’s got a shock of dyed or bleached yellow hair which hangs down onto his forehead, in kind of a Trumpian fashio. But the rest of his hair is brown and curling a bit over the collar. He was wearing a nondescript black suit and a white shirt and tie, and he seemed to smile a lot, considering the fact he was there to plead guilty to three felonies.
The judge acknowledged the presence of the three government attorneys (I didn’t ask, but I’m guessing the other two were from the North Dakota U.S. Attorney’s office), welcomed Reichert and then proceeded to quiz Halek a bit, asking about his family (“I have two daughters, ages 19 and 21, your honor”) and where he was living at the time (in Texas). And the judge asked if Halek was aware of the charges against him, and Halek replied he was. All in all, a very pleasant, casual conversation.
The judge then explained that he was going to read three charges against Halek, charges 2, 3 and 4 of a 13-count indictment the government had brought earlier.
“Count 2 is a violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act. How do you plead?”
“Count 3 is another violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act. How do you plead?”
Count 4 is another violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act. How do you plead?”
The judge then lifted up a great big book, probably 500 or 600 pages, and said that in the book were guidelines for sentencing crimes like the ones Halek had committed and pleaded guilty to. He asked Attorney Reichert if he and his client were familiar with the sentencing guidelines. Reichert held up his own copy of the book and said, “Yes, Your Honor.”
The judge acknowledged the earlier agreement between Costantini and Reichert, that Halek would serve between 24 and 30 months in prison, and said he would consider the agreement and said everyone should come back to his courtroom on July 31 for formal sentencing, to hear his decision on whether he accepts the agreement. That’s the day Halek will shuffle off to prison.
The only thing I learned from Wednesday’s hearing was that this is costing the U.S. government a lot of money. Costantini had to fly in from Washington. And he’s put in a lot of hours on this. The Environmental Protection Agency and the Justice Department don’t take Safe Drinking Water Act violations lightly. Good for them. Halek now has a court-appointed attorney — he had originally hired Reichert, but he appears to have run out of money, so the government is picking up the tab for his lawyer now. And Reichert had to drive in from Grand Forks. Maybe the used car business is not so good in Texas these days. And from what I can tell, he’s still on the hook for about $22 million in a fraud case in Texas that’s never been settled.
Luckily for North Dakota, which according to the Legislature meeting right now, seems to be teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, it’s the feds picking up the tab. Our attorney general, Wayne Stenehjem, determined a few years ago that there just wasn’t enough evidence to convict Halek of anything. As I have reported here several times, it was our U. S. Attorney, Tim Purdon, who called bullshit and went after Halek. Maybe Stenehjem foresaw this economic disaster the state’s facing right now and wisely decided to save the state some money. In that case, I guess we should be grateful to him for being prudent with the state’s money. Uh huh.
I’ll report back July 31.