Daniel Minchew, conceding his guilt but claiming that he was being made a scapegoat by his childhood hero and former boss, Sen. Herman E. Talmadge (D-Ga), was sentenced yesterday to four months in prison.
U.S. District Court Judge John Lewis Smith Jr. rejected Minchew's impassioned plea for probation, and ordered the 40-year-old former Talmadge aide to report to a federal prison by Nov. 1 to begin serving his term.
"Sen. Talmadge was my hero," Minchew said, pausing often to choke back sobs that threatened to become so intense at one point that the judge called a five-minute recess. "When I learned his private life was for him an almost living hell, I was happy to do anything for him."
At first, Minchew said, that help was limited to his picking up Spanish melons from a fruit stand for the senator. Later, Minchew has said, it became involvement in a plot to misuse government funds.
Talmadge has denied any knowledge of financial misconduct by his staff, and has labeled Minchew as a liar who diverted funds for his own use. The accusations by Talmadge "wiped me out," Minchew told the judge yesterday.
Minchew had entered a guilty plea on July 31 to one count of submitting to the government a fake $2,289.99 expense voucher bearing Talmadge's name.
The plea concerned his use of an account opened in his and Talmadge's names at Riggs Bank in Washington, and one of its deposits was the $2,289.99 expense check that was supposedly a reimbursement to the senator for items such as postage and home office expenses.
Talmadge has denied knowing about the Riggs account and said he never signed any documents in connection with it.
The Senate Ethics Committee last month voted to demounce Talmadge, and recommended that he repay $13,000 in improper expense funds channeled into the secret bank account. The committee also said Talmadge "either knew or should have known" about financial misconduct by his office staff. The Senate is expected to act on the denouncement recommendation today.
Minchew's attorney, Lawrence Schwartz, said yesterday that his client did not personally benefit from his wrongdoing and cooperated with both the Senate and Justice Department investigations of alleged financial misconduct involving Talmadge's office.
"To say I'm sorry is insufficient," Minchew told the judge here. "I knew right from wrong."
But, he said, he did not have the courage to "step forward and say, 'no this will stop,'" when Talmadge asked him to handle personal financial matters. Instead, Minchew said, "I wanted out and I got out," by being appointed to a now-expired post at the International Trade Commission.
Smith noted Minchew's background -- Minchew's father was a law enforcement officer and his stepfather a judge -- and said, "This is a most unfortunate case."
He said he had no alternative but to sentence Minchew to jail because Smith added, "You did violate the public trust."
After Minchew serves his four-month term in a federal prison, to be designated later this month, he will be on probation for two years.
The Justice Department is continuing its investigation into Talmadge's finances, but sources familiar with that probe say there is only a slim chance of any criminal prosecution of the senator.
The Senate Ethics Committee reported last week that its probe turned up evidence of eight possible violations of federal law, and those also have been forwarded to the Justice Department.