Tyler Harber served two years in federal prison for a crime for which nobody else has ever been prosecuted. Prior to February 12, 2015, he was a political consultant, a Fox News commentator and a rising Republican star who had run scores of campaigns all over the world. That all ended when he entered a guilty plea to setting up a Super PAC to funnel money to a political campaign he was managing and lying about it to the FBI. His fall from grace made national news.
Now he’s back at home in Washington, D.C., reacquainting himself with his children and rebuilding his life. He says he’s making progress.
“I never yield to misfortune of any type,” he said. When asked how he pulls that off, he laughed.
“Stupidity, probably. I was raised to overcome any obstacle that was in front of me, and to date, nothing’s been put in front of me that I couldn’t overcome.”
There’s evidence in the record to back up that claim. He was barely old enough to vote when he roiled Knox County’s political firmament in the service of former Mayor Mike Ragsdale. He was Ragsdale’s boy genius/political enforcer until 2006 when he was accused of getting into the email account of a county GOP official who wasn’t toeing Ragsdale’s line. When the sheriff and the media got involved, Harber was thrown under the bus. He relocated to Washington and landed on his feet.
Now he’s 36 and starting all over again.
Normally, a white-collar first offender like Harber would expect to be sent to a cushy “Club Fed” camp facility to while away a relatively short sentence.
Not Harber. He served his time at the Brobdingnagian Federal Correctional Complex in Butner, North Carolina, whose sprawling campus houses low, medium and maximum-security prisons and the industries that support such a facility, including an enormous hospital. Harber spent his first two weeks behind bars in solitary confinement, which came as a surprise, but not as a shock, to him.
“I should have gone to minimum security camp but the Department of Justice and the Bureau of Prisons were pissed off at me because I wouldn’t cooperate – so I went to a real prison,” he said. “Right before I was locked in, a corrections officer let me keep my Bible to read, and for first two weeks, that’s all I did. Read, slept and ate whatever they gave me, which was never consistent. No change of clothes. Every night I’d wash a different item of clothing in the sink and let it dry. But I did have a window and I could see trees.”
Richard Pilger, director of the Department of Justice Election Crimes division, headed Harber’s prosecution. Harber says Pilger was after bigger fish, but settled for him when he refused help them climb the food chain.
“He was waging a witch hunt on Super PACs, and the truth is, he ran into me. I’m sure there were people in front of me who cooperated to save their rear ends, but I couldn’t see trying to sell somebody else out just to save myself from being prosecuted by Richard Pilger. So I was cherry-picked. When I said I wasn’t going to be of much assistance to them, they said, ‘We’re going to charge you with something nobody else has ever been charged with.’”
Super Political Action Committees came to be as a result of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United “money is speech” ruling that opened the door for “outside” groups to funnel unlimited (and unreported) amounts of cash into political campaigns. The catch is that Super PACs must remain separate from their candidates and cannot give money directly to campaigns or “coordinate” their efforts with the campaigns they support. This allows candidates to keep their hands clean and leave the dirty work to Super PACs.
“They (the Department of Justice) were out to kill the Koch-funded Super PACs,” Harber said. “They were certainly furious with me and thought that I could have done more to bring criminals like myself to justice. But I don’t think what I was doing was criminal to begin with. Pilger asked for far more time than what the judge gave me, probably because it was a frivolous charge. But I really wasn’t scared about the whole going-to-prison part. I’ve always sought out experiences that are rare and hard to find.”
After he left solitary confinement, Harber was sent to the Federal Medical Center and assigned to the cancer ward, where he went to work helping sick patients get released.
“What happens to people who go to prison and get sick? Every day these gentlemen would die, no matter what kind of sentence they got. So here I am for the first two months with nothing to do, so I asked to be law clerk and started working on compassionate release forms.
“I got 14 of those guys released so they could go home to spend their last days with their families. Unfortunately, two of them ended up passing before they were physically released. The system was quite broken.”
When he finally landed in low security, Harber’s reputation preceded him. He’s not an attorney, but since incarcerated lawyers generally want to be paid for their services and most inmates had no ability to pay, his services were in great demand.
“When I got to the Low, I already had a position in prison social system – being a law clerk and advisor for inmates who had no ability to pursue outside legal counsel. My work for these folks made my life easier – no one stole from me and I experienced very little violence.
“I spent months trying to become competent in post-conviction legal proceedings and at the court of appeals level. Overall, I wrote hundreds of briefs and petitions on behalf of the men I helped. Unlike working in the real world, where you can schedule time, in prison, there’s nowhere to hide. You see these guys all the time. And that was good. It helped.”
Harber said his efforts resulted in two presidential sentence commutations by President Barack Obama (both non-violent drug offenses) and reduced sentences for more than 80 inmates. He was appalled at the number of lengthy sentences as a result of over-prosecution or outright mistakes. The case of a semi-literate Ohio man whose prior state conviction triggered a habitual offender rap stands out in Harber’s memory. The Ohioan was arrested in his girlfriend’s car. She had a gun. He was charged with “construed possession” and sentenced to 18 years.
“He asked me to read it, and they had given him a sentence that was too long. I wrote (the appeal) and within a month, he was home.”
He also got to know inmates, many of them famous, who can afford their own lawyers but will live out their lives in prison because of the enormity of their crimes. No one was more notorious than stockbroker/financial advisor/financier Bernie Madoff, architect of the biggest Ponzi scheme in American history – bilking some $64.8 billion from trusting clients.
Madoff is serving a 125-year sentence, but still had an eye out for the main chance.
“He found out that the commissary was phasing out hot chocolate, and bought almost all of it that was left, sat on it for a few weeks and then went out and sold it on the yard for a profit,” Harber said.
He said he believes that Madoff has some remorse, but he’s not sure exactly what for.
“You don’t talk a whole lot about stuff like that. Most of the guys I was in with admit to at least some part of their crime – I don’t think I ever met anybody that said I’m innocent 100 percent. …”
He made some friends there, but says that he cannot talk to other felons under the conditions of his probation.
“There are a couple of guys I keep up with, but it’s one of those prison things – when you get out, everybody goes their separate ways and there are no hard feelings.”
Does he plan to stay in politics?
“I only know how to do one thing, and nobody really cares where you come from or whether or not you have a record. They just care if you can get the job done. Getting arrested on such a petty charge has actually garnered me a lot of respect. Few people have the opportunity to publicly demonstrate they are trustworthy, and even willing to go to prison rather than roll over on everyone else to keep from getting charged with federal election coordination, of which I remain the only person in the history of this country to be convicted.”