Two former public officials were sentenced to prison Wednesday for their roles in a $1.3 million bribery scheme to sell water to the Southern Nevada Water Authority.
Robert Coache and Michael E. Johnson, convicted of dozens of felonies in November, must serve 36 to 94 months behind bars and pay back the money they received, District Judge Richard Scotti ruled.
The two were indicted more than five years ago and were accused of taking kickbacks to help a wealthy Bunkerville landowner sell his water rights.
Chief Deputy District Attorney Marc DiGiacomo said the convictions and sentences send “a significant statement to the community.”
“Their crime here was substantial,” he said. “It was significant. And it is one that the community deserves to have some sort of deterrent effect against future public officers who think it’s OK to take that kind of money.”
Scotti said he weighed upward of 20 factors, ranging from the character of the defendants to the strength of the evidence against them, before deciding to impose prison time.
Johnson, a 57-year-old former chief hydrologist for the Virgin Valley Water District in Mesquite, was convicted of all counts, including bribery, extortion, money laundering and other illegal financial transactions.
Coache, a 58-year-old retired deputy state engineer with the Nevada Division of Water Resources, was found guilty of all but a single charge of misconduct by a public officer.
Defense attorneys argued for probation, saying the two would be punished without spending time in prison.
“These guys are not a threat to the community in any semblance of the imagination, and we all know that,” said Bret Whipple, who represents Coache. “Enough is enough. What is it inside of us that desires that harshness for something where there is absolutely no suggestion of violence?”
Johnson asked the judge for leniency and said the case had “a huge emotional effect” on him and his family. Coache told the judge he lost his license with the state after being convicted.
Both defendants hugged family members before being handcuffed and taken into custody.
The bribery scheme unfolded between Jan. 1, 2006, and May 21, 2008, when Johnson and Coache used their public positions to help landowner John Lonetti Jr. secure water rights on the Virgin River and then sell them to the Southern Nevada Water Authority, wholesale water supplier for the Las Vegas Valley, for $8.4 million.
In return, Lonetti funneled $1.3 million to the men through Rio Virgin LLC, a company they set up and then dissolved after the transaction.
Coache retired from his state job in May 2010, and Johnson resigned under fire from the Virgin Valley Water District a few months later. Lonetti was never charged in the case.
DiGiacomo said it is unclear what the landowner received in exchange for the bribe money that he could not have received by hiring a lawyer for a few thousand dollars to handle the water transaction for him.
The nonprofit Southern Nevada Water Authority cooperated with investigators and was not accused of any wrongdoing.
Defense attorneys said they planned to appeal the convictions.
Prosecutors have said Coache and Johnson also could stand to lose ownership of at least two valley homes they purchased with money from the scheme.
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