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John L. Smith On The Commutation Of Billy Walters Sentence

(AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

In this July 27, 2017, file photo, Las Vegas gambler William "Billy" Walters leaves Manhattan federal court, in New York. Walters, a Las Vegas professional gambler, real estate mogul and philanthropist who was convicted in an insider trading case said Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021, he's grateful his prison sentence was commuted by outgoing President Donald Trump.

Former-President Donald Trump's final hours in office were marked by 140 commutations and pardons of people convicted of a wide variety of crimes.

In Nevada, the former president commuted the sentence of high rolling gambler Billy Walters. He was convicted in 2017 for insider trading, and he was fined $10 million and was serving a 60-month sentence before the commutation. 

But there were others with ties to Nevada who also got presidential pardons or commutations. 

State of Nevada contributor John L. Smith has been following that story. 

“Actually, the Las Vegas pardons and commutations might be some of the tamer ones that he did,” Smith said.

The former president raised some eyebrows when he pardoned people close to him, including former adviser Roger Stone, former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and former top adviser Steve Bannon, who hadn't been convicted of a crime but had only been charged with fraud.

Smith said the pardons that the former president handed out to Nevadans were more mainstream.

“Pardons tend to be more white-collar driven in recent years," he said, "You find a lot more drug-related commutations of sentences and pardons because of the really hard-core, some would call Draconian, sentencing guidelines that were there during the heart of the drug war.”

Walters is without a doubt the most well-known Nevadan on the pardon and commutation list.

Smith explained that Walters, a professional gambler, real estate mogul and philanthropist, was convicted of insider trading in 2017.

“Walters befriended a person with insider information at Dean Foods, and, according to the government, used that to benefit more than $30 million in insider stock moves and also save himself about $11 million in loss potentially. That adds up to around $40 million, according to the government’s estimate,” he said. 

Smith said Walters lost in court "persuasively." 

However, Walters accused the prosecutors of leaking information to the media about the case, which he says negatively impacted the outcome. He's been pursuing that case in civil court.

Some people have speculated that Walters' attorney had something to do with the commutation. John Dowd served as Walters' attorney, and he was, at one point, the former president's personal attorney. 

Smith pointed out that Dowd is a "powerhouse" attorney so it is not unusual for someone like Walters to hire him. Walters has denied that a conversation about Dowd talking to former President Trump on his behalf took place.

“Be that as it may, he clearly was pushing for a full pardon," Smith said, "A pardon, of course, is a big eraser that takes the crime away.”

Instead of pardon, he got a commuted sentence, which means he is free to live his life, but the felon conviction stays on his record.

Walters had many prominent Nevadans on his side in his effort to get a pardon. Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, former Governor Jim Gibbons, former Congresswoman Shelley Berkley and several more vouched for his character. 

“He definitely had support from some big names," Smith said, "I’m sure the philanthropy helped, but let’s be frank, so did the fact that he was a major political contributor and a deal maker at city hall, at the county commission and at the state government. Billy Walters got the best of almost every relationship.”

Smith said Walters likely called in every marker he had to get some kind of relief. 

“Basically, he got a pretty good deal at the last minute," Smith said, "Didn’t get, I think, probably what he really wanted was a full pardon.”

Another Nevadan on the pardon list was Stephen Odzer. Smith said Odzer had been convicted of bank fraud in 2007.

Odzer also had some powerful supporters, including the well-known, right-wing radio personality Wayne Allen Root and Sig Rogich, who Smith calls the "Republican insider extraordinaire." 

Odzer received what is known as a conditional pardon, which means if he follows certain rules he'll receive a full pardon. The agreement he has to follow is to continue paying back restitution to the government. 

The final person with connections to Nevada on the pardon list is Kyle Kimoto.

Kimoto had served 12 years of a 29-year sentence in connection with a fraudulent telemarketing scam, Smith said.

His telemarketing company would contact people who needed credit cards. But instead of giving them access to credit, they would ask people to send them money and send those people back an application for credit.

Smith said once the company got people's personal information they continued to charge them re-occurring fees  - year after year.

When the Federal Trade Commission investigated, it found he had ripped off customers to the tune of more than $30 million, Smith said.

Kimoto's family had pleaded for leniency in the case, pointing out that other scams, like the people behind the Enron scandal, hadn't received as much prison time as him. 

Smith admits that is true, but said Kimoto's scam, "victimized people who were unsophisticated and unable to free themselves from it."

Smith said Kimoto also received help from prominent people, including former-President Trump's daughter Ivanka Trump and the singer Jewel, who had a charity in common with Kimoto.

“It is an interesting story that plays out, unfortunately, in part because of Nevada’s limited liability corporation laws," Smith said, "It plays out more with the Nevada connection than it might elsewhere. Many telemarketing scammers over the years have been anchored in Nevada, at least with legal paperwork, because our laws are so lenient.” 

As Smith worked his way through the list of presidential pardons and commutations, he was struck with the difference between white-collar criminals and others.

“As I go over that list over that list of 143 names, and this not a shot at the departed president, the reality is this in America: White-collar crimes are treated differently, even when they receive heavy sentences. They have far more access to legal remedy, to political remedy and these are good examples of that,” he said.

The longtime reporter said that run-of-the-mill criminals aren't getting anyone to vouch for their character and they're likely not giving to politicians or charities.

But he said - that's not really news - that's America.

John L. Smith, contributor

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Joe Schoenmann joined Nevada Public Radio in 2014. He works with a talented team of producers at State of Nevada who explore the casino industry, sports, politics, public health and everything in between.