Meet the man who battles white-collar crime
15 PEOPLE TO WATCH IN 2016
Rob Sand’s departing boss left him a single accordion file, filled with the pieces of evidence Iowa investigators had gathered as they tried to discover exactly who bought a mysterious Hot Lotto ticket worth millions from a Des Moines QuikTrip.
That was June 2014, and the file “wasn’t even that thick,” said Sand, a prosecutor in the area prosecutions division of the Iowa attorney general’s office.
Agents with the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation had been looking for a lead since December 2011, when a New York lawyer came seemingly out of nowhere to try to redeem the $14.3 million ticket on behalf of a faceless company incorporated in Belize.
The file grew into terabytes of video surveillance and other evidence that would help the Decorah native win a nationally watched conviction last July in the fraud trial of Eddie Tipton, a former lottery information security director accused of using malicious software to rig games.
Sand, 33, is one of The Des Moines Register’s 15 People to Watch in 2016, and the new year will keep him in the public eye as he pursues tough white-collar crime cases amid concerns over equity in the criminal system.
His efforts will include a fresh set of ongoing criminal conduct and money laundering charges against Tipton. A tip that came in to the DCI after the July trial suggests Tipton, his brother and a longtime friend are all connected toat least three other jackpots won in Oklahoma, Colorado and Wisconsin that paid out a total of more than $1.9 million.
“The way I look at an investigation is if you have a thread, you need to keep pulling it,” he said. “You don’t know where it leads, but until you’ve uncovered the truth of what happened, you have a duty and an obligation to do that. I don’t think anybody at the time was thinking it would turn into what it has turned into.”
As Sand prepares to go back into the courtroom against Tipton, the first trial will be put under the microscope by appellate judges. Tipton's defense lawyers are working to overturn the verdict and the 10-year prison sentence that was handed down by a district court judge.
'Not going to shy away from a tough case'
Dean Stowers, the defense lawyer who represented Tipton at trial, has maintained his client's innocence and argued that Sand's case was built on a theory without actual evidence. The case never had a "smoking gun" piece of evidence, , said Bob Rigg, a Drake University criminal defense law professor.
The new case could be in jeopardy if an appeals court is convinced faulty evidence led to the conviction in Tipton’s first trial, said Nicholas Klinefeldt, the former U.S. attorney for the southern district of Iowa who focused on white-collar prosecutions during his stint in the job.
Klinefeldt has watched the cases progress and credits Sand for his persistence.
“I think he had a lot of success the first round,” he said. “Rob’s a good lawyer who’s not going to shy away from a tough case.”
Nationwide, bipartisan advocates of criminal justice reform have focused their efforts on issues like mandatory minimum sentences, which are criticized as draconian for nonviolent drug offenders.
Sand sees inequities in the system from a slightly different angle, one that's driven him to specialize in prosecuting white-collar crime, even though these sorts of cases are often taken up by federal prosecutors who have the resources of the FBI.
The case for a focus on white-collar crime
Under Iowa law, a person who robs a gas station using a knife or any dangerous weapon can be convicted of first-degree robbery and will face a mandatory 17½-years in prison before being eligible for parole. The mandatory minimum will apply whether a defendant is a hardened career criminal or a drug addict who acts in desperation and has little to no criminal history, Sand said.
But people convicted of fraud or embezzlement under Iowa law can often qualify for probation — including Tipton. His lawyer argued unsuccessfully at a September hearing that he would be a good candidate, in part, because the lottery never paid any money out on the $14.3 million that led to his first trial.
Sand often sees probation as a fundamentally unfair outcome, given that fraud can involve years of coordination to break the law by people who know better.
“Financial crimes are very planned, sober violations of the law," he said. "They’re not drunk when they’re doing it. They’re thinking very clearly about it."
Sand argues it's that clarity in thinking that make highly visible prosecutions of white-collar offenses important. More than any other type of crime, white-collar prosecutions make other would-be embezzlers or fraudsters take notice, he said.
Not everyone embraces that idea. Angela Campbell, a Des Moines criminal defense attorney who's faced Sand in court, called it an outdated way of thinking.
"In the '80s that was certainly the thought — prosecutions and prison deter everyone from everything," Campbell said. "That’s why our prisons are overcrowded."
Others though, including Klinefeldt and Rigg, said the young prosecutor's logic is on target.
Rigg said of Sand, whom he's opposed in litigation: "He is bright, he's articulate and he does his homework."
Perhaps a future in political arena?
The first public cause Sand took on was spurred when he was a Decorah teenager who didn't have a decent place to ride a skateboard. Sand spent two of his high school years lobbying business and civic leaders in the northeast Iowa town for a new skateboard park.
The park was finally built after he graduated from high school in 2001. The experience proved to be a catalyst for pushing Sand into public service.
“My cousins grew up using it,” he said. “It was awesome watching that.”
The decision to become an attorney came during his junior year at Brown University. A scholarship to the University of Iowa’s law school convinced him to come home, and an internship with the attorney general's office opened the door for the work he does now.
He started work in the office after graduation in 2010 just as prosecutors were investigating and bringing cases to trial in the Iowa Film Office scandal, which involved abuse of tax credits.
Today, while he remains focused on winning convictions in the cases he's handling, Sand, the father of a 1½-year-old son, talks openly about dipping his toe into politics. In September, the Democratic politics-focused news startup Iowa Starting Line profiled him as a rising star in the party.
Sand has some experience in the political arena. Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller first met Sand in 2006, when he worked on the campaign of Democrat Denise O'Brien as she made an unsuccessful bid against Bill Northey to become Iowa's agriculture secretary.
"I think he's got a lot of talent and a huge commitment to public service," Miller said.
Sand declined to say whether he has an eye on any office in particular. But nobody interested in running for elected office should be coy about their intentions, he said.
"I think it's problem that our political system is so disgusting to us that people who have aspirations to be involved in it feel like they need to hide it," he said. "I don't think that's healthy. Does that mean I will? No. But again my family was public-service-oriented, and I want to be where I think I'm doing the most good. … If I think that I can do more good somewhere else, than yeah, I want to get involved."
Home: Des Moines
Education: Bachelor's degree from Brown University in political science, juris doctor from University of Iowa Law School
Family: Wife, Christine, and son, Tait
15 PEOPLE TO WATCH IN 2016: ABOUT THE SERIES
These are central Iowans in business, arts, nonprofits, civic activism and non-http://www.desmoinesregister.com/topic/c449360f-deca-4e63-bde0-20ff2a62f4cf/elected government positions who are expected to make a difference in their fields of endeavor in 2016. Readers were invited to submit nominations. Selections were made by Des Moines Register editors and reporters. Look for profiles daily through early January.