OGDEN — Calling it "comical" and "ridiculous," a judge balked when presented with state guidelines suggesting that a man who stole more than $200,000 from his friend be sentenced to just 45 days in jail.
Instead, Judge Michael Direda sent Jason Reed Barber, 48, of Liberty, to prison to serve one to 15 years while blasting the Weber County man's actions and the state's Justice Reinvestment Initiative's sentencing matrix.
"I’m happy to stand face-to-face, chest-to-chest with any legislator, with the governor of this state, and defend my position that that 45-day recommendation is a joke. It’s an absolute travesty," the 2nd District judge said during a hearing last week.
"And anyone who believes under the Justice Reinvestment that that sentence is appropriate is absolutely insane. Because to steal that amount of money, to devastate two human beings to the level you have and receive a month and two weeks (in jail), why wouldn’t any of us do the same thing? I mean, that’s not a deterrent from taking that kind of money from people.”
The Justice Reinvestment Initiative, signed into law in 2015 by Gov. Gary Herbert, was designed to reduce incarceration and recidivism rates by sending those who pose the greatest risk to the community to prison, while helping those who don’t pose a danger — mainly drug offenders — through treatment.
Adult Probation and Parole issues presentence reports in most criminal cases to a judge, in which they make a recommendation for a defendant's sentence based on a matrix of established sentencing guidelines.
The case that raised the ire of Direda centered on friends who went into business together.
In 2013, Barber and his girlfriend, who were good friends with Paul and Nicole Lambert, of Sandy, decided to jointly purchase a cabin in Eden for $350,000, according to charging documents. They placed their purchase in an LLC to be managed jointly by both Barber and Paul Lambert.
But when it came time to make a payment, Barber didn't have the money. Lambert said he trusted his friend and paid for the entire cabin, assuming Barber would pay him back.
Instead, prosecutors say in 2014, Barber took out a $205,000 "bridge loan" using the cabin as collateral without Lambert's knowledge. He then allegedly changed the structure of the LLC by making himself and his girlfriend-now-wife as managers and the Lamberts as "member status," and forged an operating agreement giving Barber 51 percent control of the LLC.
"Jason stated to the lending company that the money was to invest in a golf course project in Arizona, but a detailed examination of banking records shows that little money was used to fund the project. Most of the funds were used to maintain Jason's lifestyle and pay for several vacations," according to charging documents.
Barber also spent the money on cars and a "lavish wedding," Paul Lambert said in court Friday.
In just over two months, Barber spent all $205,000 without making a single loan payment, according to investigators. The Lamberts soon found themselves scrambling to prevent the cabin from foreclosing, as well as putting up expensive legal fees for attorneys.
The Lamberts agreed to a plea deal in 2016 in which Brown took a plea in abeyance. Prosecutors objected to offering a plea deal but said they felt compelled by the victims who hoped that a deal would mean Barber would pay them back for their losses. He pleaded guilty to communications fraud, a second-degree felony, and forgery, a third-degree felony. As part of the deal, Barber was to repay the Lamberts $268,000 by October, according to court records.
But as of Friday, he had only repaid $30,000. In addition to the restitution he still owes the Lamberts, a federal tax lien for $3.4 million was placed on Barber, and he owes another land developer approximately $250,000, according to prosecutors.
"That tells me that you are engaging again in some sort of manipulative, deceptive behavior that has resulted in another debt, another obligation,” Direda said. "The amount of money that you owe is staggering. It truly is."
Barber's attorney, David Black, acknowledged that while his client does not currently have the money to pay the Lamberts, he does have a “strong, earnest desire to continue to find a way to get the victims taken care of."
Black asked the judge to follow the recommendations in the presentence report and give his client 45 days in jail with the opportunity to be released so he could earn money to pay restitution.
The judge said if he thought that would ever happen, he would consider it.
"The problem is, I have no confidence that you’ll do it,” Direda said. "I don’t have confidence in your sincerity to do it."
"Let’s just face it right now, there’s not going to be any restitution paid here. We’re kidding ourselves,” prosecutor Christopher Shaw told the judge. "So the only alternative we’re left with is punish the behavior."
"My perception is that this case arises out of nothing more than its very base level — greed. A desire to have a lot of money and live at a very high level, and to do so at somebody else’s expense,” he said. "I don’t realistically believe that you’re going to be able to pay this off. I think that you started off with that hope. And I think you were rewarded for your sincerity when you were given a plea in abeyance agreement. I think everyone thought you’re going to do this and 'let’s give him an opportunity to make it right.' But you’ve not made it right. And the reality is it’s not likely to be made right anytime soon."
Direda said while Barber doesn't pose a danger to society in the sense that violent criminals do, "you are every bit a danger to the community in terms of your deception and manipulation and the financial devastation you have caused people."
Before being sentenced, Barber apologized to "my good friends who trusted me," the Lamberts, who were present in the courtroom. He said he was "grateful" to go through this experience because it would make him a better man, and that he'd “be able to look them in the eyes again and have them be a friend."
But an emotional Paul Lambert said that while he appreciated the apology, the mental, physical and financial toll that his family had endured the past couple of years has been immense.
"The amount of money you stole from us and what that caused my family I can appreciate your apology, (but) do you know how long and hard I worked? Everyone in this courtroom gets up and goes to work every day. I’ve been doing it for 18 years and saved my money, and you stole it all from me,” Lambert said nearly in tears. "It has changed my life forever. You took our money and you went and played with it."
"I believe that the minute he shook our hands, that we were a target for him," Nicole Lambert said of the first time she was introduced to Barber.
"I truly believe that that minute, that he thought this would be an easy route to fund his lifestyle. You took what wasn’t yours."