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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Airway Heights prison guard gets 2 months for smuggling drugs inside. Prisoner who received the drugs? He got 56 months.

UPDATED: Fri., June 11, 2021

A fence topped with barbed wire surrounds the Airway Heights Corrections Center in 2018. A former guard was sentenced to two months in federal prison after pleading guilty to smuggling drugs in the compound, while his coconspirators received sentences longer than three years.  (Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review)
A fence topped with barbed wire surrounds the Airway Heights Corrections Center in 2018. A former guard was sentenced to two months in federal prison after pleading guilty to smuggling drugs in the compound, while his coconspirators received sentences longer than three years. (Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review)

A former prison guard who admitted to smuggling 200 strips of prescription opioid medicine into the Airway Heights Correction Center last July has been sentenced to two months in prison, far less than the five-year minimum term prescribed in federal law.

The written arguments that swayed U.S. District Court Judge Rosanna Malouf Peterson to hand down the exceptional sentence have been filed under seal. Michael Mattern’s co-conspirators received sentences of 56 and 30 months, respectively, which were also below the five-year minimum.

The felony conviction does not automatically disqualify Mattern, 46, from serving a future role with the Department of Corrections.

Mattern, an employee of the state prison for nearly 20 years, was found with 200 strips of Suboxone, the prescription medication used to treat opioid addiction that can also be abused. Investigators also found him in possession of 14.6 grams of methamphetamine and 2.9 grams of heroin at the prison. The drugs were hidden in a tobacco tin inside Mattern’s lunch box, according to court records.

Mattern resigned from the department the same day a criminal complaint was filed in federal court.

An investigation by the FBI and the Washington Department of Corrections revealed that an inmate, 34-year-old Joseph Burnett, called from a phone in the prison to request drugs be smuggled into the prison while he was serving a sentence on theft and robbery charges. The phone calls began in March 2020, after COVID-19 lockdown procedures limited visits at the prison.

The drugs were supplied by Brandy Lorentzen, 46, who met with Mattern to provide the drugs and payment for smuggling, according to a sworn statement from FBI Special Agent David DiBartolo based on surveillance of Mattern’s car. The FBI and DOC received tips from unnamed inmates in the prison that drugs were being smuggled into Mattern’s unit of the corrections facility. Lorentzen knew Burnett before his incarceration and had previously spent time in federal prison on a heroin distribution charge.

Mattern pleaded guilty in January to a single count of conspiracy to distribute drugs, but contended in court documents that he was only aware of the Suboxone, which Burnett said sold for $250 a strip in the prison during the lockdown, according to court records. He said he didn’t know the tin also included meth and heroin. The charge carries a five-year minimum sentence under federal law, but judges have discretion about whether to follow those guidelines based on the arguments of attorneys.

Those written arguments have been kept from public review and scrutiny in Mattern’s case.

A document known as a sentencing memorandum is prepared in most federal cases, making arguments for a departure from the guideline in a specific case by both the prosecution and defense. Those records may be filed under seal, preventing public inspection for a number of reasons.

Mattern’s sentencing memoranda were filed under seal, and his defense attorney, Richard Mount, declined to discuss the sentence Wednesday, citing “confidential details” in the sentencing reports. The U.S. Attorney’s Office also declined comment beyond what was in the public court filings.

Public minutes of the sentencing proceedings show that multiple members of Mattern’s family spoke on his behalf at his sentencing, and the courtroom also included members of the group Narcotics Anonymous that Mattern had been attending. Mattern was permitted to attend a softball game sponsored by Narcotics Anonymous in Coeur d’Alene while his criminal matter was pending, according to court records.

Lorentzen and Burnett pleaded guilty to the same conspiracy count, a felony. Lorentzen received a 30-month prison sentence, while Burnett received 56 months.

Kurtis Robinson, executive director of the group I Did the Time that advocates for reforms to assist previously incarcerated people and first vice president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, said the publicly available information about Mattern’s sentencing was “very concerning.”

“We see that play out time and time again, where law enforcement, for similar offenses, are treated unequally, are held inequitably accountable,” Robinson said. “That’s a problem. That undermines public trust.”

Jeffry Finer, who represented Lorentzen, said the prison term agreed to by Peterson was a just resolution in her case.

“I don’t know the reason for Mr. Mattern’s sentence,” Finer said, adding that judges have a lot of discretion in what to seal and unseal, and that he was happy with the inclusion of drug treatment programming for his client while she is incarcerated.

Burnett’s attorney, Jeff Niesen, said he didn’t know the reasoning behind Mattern’s sentence but that he was “dumbfounded” when he read it.

“Richard is a good lawyer. He’s a smart lawyer, there’s no two ways about it,” Niesen said.

Burnett’s sentencing memorandum was filed publicly with the court, and disputes Mattern’s claim that he was bribed into participating in the smuggling.

“His addiction has been the source of his problems with law enforcement and limited his involvement with his children,” the memorandum reads.

Niesen said he believed his client’s lengthier sentence had to do with his criminal history.

Burnett was listed in custody of the Spokane County Jail on Thursday. Lorentzen and Mattern were permitted to surrender on their own to the U.S. Marshals. Neither were listed in federal custody Thursday.

Department of Corrections policy does not automatically disqualify employment based on a felony conviction, agency spokeswoman Jacque Coe wrote in an email.

“Washington State Department of Corrections policy requires all applicants for employment to disclose felony convictions and, while not precluded from employment, prior conviction information is definitely considered as it relates to the specific role and job performance,” she wrote.

Mattern will remain on supervised release for life, according to the terms of his sentence. He must complete 300 hours of community service and will face up to six months of home confinement after release.

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