An Auburn man who turned his life around after a federal conviction for money laundering more than 20 years ago received a full pardon from President Obama on Thursday.
Derek James Laliberte, now 48, pleaded guilty in 1992 in U.S. District Court in Portland to money laundering. He served a sentence that was reduced from 51 months to 18 months after he cooperated with police.
Since the day he left prison, Laliberte said, he has tried to make amends for what he did wrong, which was storing and handling money that his brothers and others had made in a drug ring.
“I had a very minor role. I was stupid, young and with a family right out of the Army,” Laliberte said. “I ended up turning myself in.”
Laliberte was among 21 people who were granted pardons or commutations of sentences by Obama on Thursday.
“I made a mistake, but I’ve always been repentant,” Laliberte said in a phone interview.
Within two weeks of his release from prison, Laliberte got a job as a driver for Crystal Spring Water. He devoted himself to his family, including his wife, who supported him through his sentence; hard work and his faith. He worked his way up to become a co-owner of Crystal Spring Water and church activities director for the Maine Knights of Columbus. He also raised two sons and a daughter.
“I applied for the pardon on my own. Honestly, I just went online and did a Google search,” Laliberte said. “There was a lot of paperwork. The FBI came around eventually.”
The FBI interviewed him, then interviewed the people he had listed as references on his application, and then asked each of those references for more contacts.
“They started interviewing everybody who knows me,” he said. “They even talked to my mother-in-law in Alaska.”
Laliberte said he committed the crime so long ago that many people who know him now don’t know about his conviction. He said the news of his pardon will likely lead more people to judge him.
“Because of my faith, I’ve learned to accept that people don’t accept. If they take the time to know me, they’ll know I’m not a bad person,” Laliberte said. “I’ve always been sorry for what I did, ashamed of what I did. I don’t want people to think I’m proud of what I did.”
A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Portland confirmed that the office was involved in the White House’s decision to pardon Laliberte.
“All I can tell you is each of the relevant agencies are contacted for input on that decision. The office of the U.S. Attorney was contacted, and we gave our input relevant to that request,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Donald Clark.
Coleman Coyne, the attorney who represented Laliberte in federal court more than 20 years ago, said he still distinctly remembers the case and sees Laliberte in the Lewiston-Auburn area to this day. “I knew Derek as a very good, hardworking young man,” he said.
“Derek had a safe in his house and simply allowed (his brother) to use the safe in his house. Derek didn’t make any money out of it, but under the law that was sufficient to qualify as laundering,” Coyne said. “It was really a question of technical guilt rather than moral guilt.”
The others pardoned by Obama on Thursday had been convicted of crimes including drug offenses, wire fraud, mail fraud, property theft, bank embezzlement and conspiracy to violate the Clean Water Act.
Eight individuals’ sentences were commuted, allowing them to go free, because they were sentenced under an older law that imposed considerably stiffer penalties for offenses involving crack cocaine or powder cocaine. That law was changed three years ago. All eight people served at least 15 years in prison for cocaine possession and distribution.
“If they had been sentenced under the current law, many of them would have already served their time and paid their debt to society,” Obama said in a prepared statement.
Washington Bureau Chief Kevin Miller contributed to this report.
Scott Dolan can be contacted at 791-6304 or at: