Gov. Rick Snyder used his pardon powers to erase the drunken driving conviction of a politically connected lawyer who was appointed to a state economic board in 2011.
Snyder followed the recommendation of the Michigan parole board and pardoned Alan Gocha Jr. in December -- one of only 11 pardons out of roughly 750 applications since the governor took office.
Each year, thousands of people in Michigan are convicted of drunken driving and can suffer long-term consequences, such as lost work and higher insurance costs. Gocha, a $250,000-a-year lawyer for the maker of 5-hour Energy drinks, now is in the clear.
The Associated Press examined court documents, campaign finance reports and Gocha's pardon file -- obtained under a public records request -- to see how a Detroit-area lawyer with a misdemeanor conviction was granted the rare benefit.
Snyder defended the pardon, saying he acted only after a "very rigorous process" by the parole board and his staff. He knows the Oakland County man and even corrected a reporter's pronunciation of Gocha's name (Go-SHAY').
"I've met him on several occasions at different events," Snyder told the AP. "He never contributed to my campaign, not had any financial connection at all. I didn't meet with him about this issue."
Pardon applications in Michigan first are screened by the parole board, which decides whether to explore a case. Most are rejected.
A pardon "releases the punishment and blots out of existence the guilt, so that in the eye of the law the offender is as innocent as if he had never committed the offense," the Michigan Supreme Court has said.
Gocha, 53, declined to talk to the AP. "I'm sort of puzzled that it's of any interest," he said.
Gocha applied in April 2012, less than four years after pleading guilty to driving while impaired in Oakland County's Bloomfield Township. An agent conducted interviews and checked records before the file "was put on the backburner," said Russ Marlan, a deputy director at the Corrections Department.
But the board the next year encouraged Gocha to apply again, he said.
The governor was interested in "potential pardons where the conviction was inhibiting them from advancing economically or was preventing them from getting a job or was preventing them from financial freedom -- from moving past some obstacle in their life," said Marlan, who oversees the parole board.
Gocha said the conviction was a "black cloud" that slowed deals with Wall Street bankers and limited international travel.
"I would really like to clean up a terrible mistake that I made," he told the board in 2014.
Bloomfield Township officers stopped Gocha for straying from his lane after midnight on Dec. 21, 2007. He lied about drinking alcohol and refused a roadside breath test because of "sheer panic," according to his testimony at the parole board.
He agreed to take a test at the police station about an hour later. His blood-alcohol level was 0.11 percent, above the 0.08 threshold for drunken driving.
Gocha claimed police had no reason to stop his Saturn Outlook, but that was a losing argument.
"He's got half of his car in the oncoming left turn lane," Judge Kimberly Small said after watching the dash-cam video. "This isn't even a close case."
Gocha pleaded guilty to driving while impaired and was sentenced to six days in jail. He continued to challenge the stop in higher courts. By spring 2011, he had lost at every turn. His next step: pursue the pardon.
The application asked for charitable or civic activities. Gocha listed his church, a law school speech and board membership at the state Chamber of Commerce. He did not disclose that he was a 2011 Snyder appointee to the Talent Investment Board, an unpaid group focusing on job creation.
"We're looking for good business people to be on boards in many capacities," the governor told the AP. "I appoint hundreds, thousands of people to boards. I think he was a good candidate."
One of Gocha's references was Bob LaBrant, a Republican strategist who is the Chamber of Commerce's former lawyer and a Snyder appointee on the Michigan Employment Relations Commission.
Gocha gave $26,500 to the chamber's political action committee from 2011 through 2013. He was general counsel for 5-hour Energy's parent company, Innovation Ventures, until 2010 when the legal department became a stand-alone firm.
The primary client is Innovation Ventures, based in Farmington Hills. Records show Gocha's firm also is the agent for ETC Capital, a private equity firm backed by 5-hour Energy's billionaire founder, Manoj Bhargava.
ETC Capital last August gave $2.5 million to the Republican Governors Association, joining conservative billionaires Sheldon Adelson and David Koch on the list of top five donors to the group that worked to elect Snyder and other Republican governors, according to an analysis by the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity. That same day, the RGA paid $3.2 million to a media company to place ads backing Snyder's re-election.
Eight weeks after ETC Capital gave $275,000 to the RGA in October 2013, the group gave $276,000 to the Michigan Republican Party.
"I had no idea that (Bhargava) was politically active. I had no idea that Gocha was politically active," said Marlan.
Gocha was "just another person" and received no special treatment, Marlan said.
Copyright 2014 by The Associated Press. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.Ed White reported from Detroit.
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