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WASHINGTON - Sen. Orrin Hatch is standing firm on his decision to help a famed R&B music producer out of a four-year jail sentence for possession of cocaine in the United Arab Emirates.
But Hatch's actions have raised questions with some Utahns, who wonder why the conservative Republican lent his influence to someone convicted in an illegal drug case.
Hatch made several phone calls to the United Arab Emirates' consul in Washington on behalf of Grammy Award-winning producer Dallas Austin, who was arrested May 19 and pleaded guilty to possession of 1.26 grams of cocaine. Drug possession is a serious crime in the Persian Gulf emirates, and Austin could have faced more than a decade in prison for simple possession.
Hatch said he made the calls out of his long-standing angst with mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, which require judges to issue sentences without taking into account a person's past history or specific circumstances.
But the senator's involvement also was due to a web of contacts Hatch has in the law firm that assisted Austin in the case, which represents him as the producer of songs for artists such as Madonna, Michael Jackson and TLC, and which also represents Hatch in his efforts as a songwriter and singer.
Hatch was asked to intercede in the case by a former staffer, Nancy Taylor, who served 10 years with the senator and now is a shareholder with the Washington, D.C., law firm of Greenberg Traurig. Another attorney in the firm, Joel Katz, represents both Austin and Hatch in their musical endeavors. Katz and attorney Joe Reeder, with the Washington office of the same firm, spent 10 days in Dubai working to secure Austin's release, according to The New York Times.
Taylor said Monday that she asked Hatch to intervene because "he is a very humanitarian person." She noted that Austin already had served two months in jail before returning to the United States on Wednesday and that it is not uncommon for the United Arab Emirates to deport foreigners instead of jailing them for years.
"In its decision, the U.A.E. stated that these type of releases often occur when the only victim is the accused," the law firm said in a statement.
Taylor also denied that the involvement had anything to do with Hatch's association with the other division of Greenberg Traurig. Hatch made nearly $40,000 last year in music royalties.
Hatch's office declined Monday to make the senator available for an interview. But it issued a statement last weekend saying the senator had "good relations with the ambassador and other good people in U.A.E. and is confident that this talented young man will learn from this experience."
Utah defense attorney Ron Yengich said that while Hatch should have gotten involved in the case, it may be unfair to others caught for simple drug possession who don't know people in high government positions.
"I go to court with those very same people every day, and the judges tell me Congress says we have to put you in prison, even for small amounts of drugs," Yengich said. "I wish that Senator Hatch and the Congress of the United States would understand this guy isn't the exception, he is the rule."
Sen. Curtis Bramble, R-Provo, said he was unsure why Hatch would take such actions for someone who pleaded guilty to drug possession.
"That does seem a little strange to me," Bramble said. "I don't have much tolerance for illegal drug users. I probably would not have done what Senator Hatch did."
Hatch's opponent in his bid for re-election, Democrat Pete Ashdown, was even more critical. On his campaign blog, Ashdown sneered that he did not understand why Hatch could not help an undocumented immigrant who made his home in Utah for 16 years remain in the United States, but could assist a Hollywood producer facing a prison sentence for drug possession.
"Evidently if you're a rich music producer with a penchant for cocaine and you're dumb enough to bring it into Dubai, then Utah's senior senator will pull your ass out of the fire," Ashdown wrote.
The Drug Enforcement Agency confirmed that federal prosecutions for about a gram of cocaine are rarely, if ever, pursued, though the crime is a felony under federal law. Under Utah law, possession of cocaine in any amount is a third-degree felony, though about a gram of the illegal substance would probably earn the possessor probation and not a prison sentence.
Austin entered the United Arab Emirates to attend a birthday celebration for supermodel Naomi Campbell, the Times said.