Arms smugglers get lighter sentences than bank robbers

(This story is part of a series, “Breakout: Inside China’s military buildup.” It is a sidebar to the Special Report headlined: “Hunting for U.S. arms tech, China taps legion of amateurs”)

Dec 18 (Reuters) - Bank robbers in the United States are likely to be sentenced to longer prison terms than individuals involved in illegally sending military technology abroad.

A typical prison sentence for a bank robber is more than five years. A Reuters review of 185 convictions for arms trafficking or arms embargo violations during the past eight years shows offenders received a median sentence of 21 months.

In 2011, the Department of Justice asked the U.S. Sentencing Commission to set five-year mandatory minimum sentences for violating the Arms Export Control Act. The commission declined, highlighting the need to distinguish between cases with little impact on national security - like gun-smuggling to Mexico - and trafficking that involved missiles or weapons of mass destruction.

The commission also said prosecutors sought lesser sentences for defendants who were cooperative, even in the most serious cases. The commission recommended tougher punishment when national security is most compromised, specifically mentioning arms trafficking to China. But that change would require action by the U.S. Congress.

The Reuters analysis shows that individuals who break the law receive far different penalties than do corporations. Companies generally paid fines in the millions of dollars; individuals often served prison time.

For instance, Ryan Mathers, a 20-year-old Marine in Hawaii, helped to sell stolen military night-vision devices through eBay in 2008 to buyers in Hong Kong, Japan and Poland and to undercover agents posing as Hong Kong buyers. The devices were valued at about $3,000 each. Mathers pleaded guilty and was sent to prison for four years.

The Pentagon’s leading manufacturer of night-vision devices, ITT Corp, illegally exported night-vision technical data to China, Singapore and Great Britain for years, and repeatedly lied to the U.S. government about its activities. Prosecutors said the actions threatened American soldiers and harmed national security.

In 2007, ITT paid a $50 million fine; no individual at ITT was charged with a crime.

At the time ITT pleaded guilty, the United States was fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and needed ITT to continue manufacturing night-vision devices for troops there. Since its conviction, ITT has received billions of dollars in new Pentagon contracts. In 2011, the company was removed from special federal monitoring over the matter.

The defense arm of ITT was spun off in 2011 as Exelis. B.J. Talley, spokesman for Exelis, declined to say whether anyone at ITT was reprimanded or fired in the night vision case. “As a matter of policy, we do not comment on personnel matters involving individual employees,” Talley said.

The distinction between how individuals and corporations are punished for arms export and embargo violations often comes down to what the government believes it can prove, said Daniel Richman, a former federal prosecutor who teaches criminal law at Columbia University. In all sorts of white collar cases, he said, prosecutors may be loath to go after low-level employees in big companies if the government believes - but cannot prove - that illegal activity was ordered by executives.

“Just as a matter of equity and discretion, it might make more sense to have the company take the fall,” Richman said.

Peter Wolff Jr, the public defender who represented Mathers, took exception to how the government handles such cases.

“They didn’t prosecute any single person there,” Wolff said of ITT. “They’re treated differently than some poor S.O.B. like Mathers.” (Edited by Blake Morrison.)