When Jon Huntsman still was in the Republican presidential race, his campaign ran a TV ad featuring a wind-up toy monkey that did back flips to dramatize Mitt Romney's notorious flip-flopping on major issues.
That flip-flopping monkey could have a cousin named Judge Dee Benson.
Benson, a U.S. District judge for Utah, caught my attention once again this week when he sentenced former This Is the Place Heritage Park Director Matthew Dahl to six months in prison for stealing $321,000 in park funds. Prosecutors had recommended up to 33 months in prison, but Benson noted Dahl, who comes from a strong Republican, LDS family, was a first-time offender convicted of a nonviolent crime.
Bogus oil and gas lease bidder Tim DeChristopher, who does not come from a strong Republican, LDS family and who, instead, became a champion of the liberals, was also a first-time offender convicted of a nonviolent crime. But Benson gave him two years in federal prison because he kept talking publicly about his environmental cause while he was awaiting sentencing.
At Dahl's sentencing, Benson said he doubted placing Dahl in prison would deter others from embezzling.
"I think we have too many people in jail. And I think one day we're going to be a little ashamed of it," Benson said.
At DeChristopher's sentencing, Benson said, "I'm not saying there isn't a place for civil disobedience, but it can't be the order of the day." He went on to say that what DeChristopher did "wasn't all that bad," but he had to go to prison anyway.
When Benson in 1994 sentenced former Emery County Attorney Mark Tanner, another good LDS Republican, for forging a client's name to a settlement agreement in order to personally get $10,000 from the U.S. Justice Department that was intended for the client, the judge told the repentant Tanner not to be so hard on himself. "What you did has some understandable elements," he added, "if you look at the whole picture."
Benson sentenced Tanner to probation.
Benson sentenced Dewey McKay, the physician convicted of illegally dispensing drugs to addicts, to 20 years. But he complained about it, saying his hands were tied because of sentencing guidelines and, during the sentencing hearing, placed much of the blame on the addicts. McKay had support from a congressman, a legislator and leaders in his LDS community.
Benson last fall sentenced former Morgan County manager Garth Day, who pleaded guilty to embezzling nearly $1 million, to 48 months in federal prison seven months longer than prosecutors had recommended.
"From my limited vantage point, I see an individual who has been misrepresenting himself for his adult professional life," Benson said. "I personally wouldn't trust Mr. Day with anything important ... he appears to me to be a typical con artist."
When attorneys for DeChristopher claimed they had it on good authority that Sen. Orrin Hatch, who was instrumental in getting Benson the judicial appointment, had discussed with Benson the proper sentence DeChristopher should get before the actual sentencing, Hatch and Benson denied they ever had such discussions.
But I wrote a few years ago about how Benson inadvertently embarrassed Hatch when Benson was on a panel at a Utah State Bar convention in Sun Valley, Idaho. Benson remarked that Hatch spoke to him while he was hearing a case in 2004 that challenged the constitutional validity of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and told the judge that he knew that he would "do the right thing."
Benson told the story on the panel to show his independence, because he ruled in favor of the monument's legal existence and he was under the impression that Hatch opposed it.