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Contractor faces sentencing for smuggling cash

The Associated Press
February 17, 2013

WICHITA — Prosecutors will ask for prison time for a private contractor who pleaded guilty to smuggling $150,000 from Afghanistan to Kansas in 2011, arguing that it was part of a larger kickback scheme, according to court documents.

U.S. District Judge Julie Robinson will weigh evidence today at what is expected to be a contentious sentencing hearing for Donald Gene Garst in federal court in Topeka. Prosecutors are asking for a prison term between 30 and 37 months as recommended under federal sentencing guidelines. The defense is seeking probation.

Garst pleaded guilty in November to one count of bulk cash smuggling, but the Army veteran has recanted his earlier admission that the money came from a kickback scheme with an Afghan company. The 51-year-old Kansas man contends the money was winnings from extensive gambling at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan where he worked as a manager for the company between 2009 and 2011. He claims that his judgment was clouded by post-traumatic stress disorder from earlier deployments in Iraq and Kosovo.

Both the government and defense have declined to comment on the case before sentencing, but each side's sentencing memorandum to the court outlines their arguments.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jared Maag argued that the defendant used the war in Afghanistan to enrich himself with disregard to the ways the crimes damage the integrity of government contracting, disrespect those serving in Afghanistan and undercut the mission of reconstruction.

Maag contends Garst used his position as a private contractor to steer government subcontracts to an Afghan company that gave him a cut of the proceeds - an illegal agreement that promised to net him at least $610,000, of which he actually obtained more than $200,000.

The government cited his criminal record, including at least eight violations of military law that led to his discharge "under other than honorable conditions." Those violations included fraternization, sexual harassment, falsifying a promotion package with intent to deceive, theft of government property, dereliction of duty and misuse of a government credit card.

The defense's document recounts Garst's troubled upbringing, which led him to leave home at 15 and work two jobs while attending high school. He dropped out of college in 1982 to join the Army and quickly realized he had "found his calling."

A decorated veteran, full-time employee of the Army National Guard and eventually a civilian contractor, Garst served his country most of his life, attorney Christopher Joseph said. While serving in Iraq as a national guardsman, he was in charge of mortuary affairs, verifying remains and processing them to return home.

Joseph wrote that Garst's PTSD symptoms allow him only two or three hours of sleep a night. He has nightmares so vivid he can see the ice poured on the bodies to preserve them, the attorney said. Garst hears voices screaming at him and sees faces of dead soldiers when agitated, Joseph said, and stepping into sunlight reminds Garst of explosives.

The defense argues that Garst suffered from psychological troubles at the time of the crime, saying his capacity for good judgment was impaired. The felony charge drove him to realize the seriousness of his conduct, his attorney wrote.

"If any good has come from Mr. Garst's bad act, it is that the gravity of this situation has awakened him to the need to address his mental health issues - thoroughly and fully," Joseph told the court.


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