Rob Sand, an Iowa assistant attorney general, holds letters from the victims of financial crimes he has successfully prosecuted.
Rob Sand, an Iowa assistant attorney general, holds letters from the victims of financial crimes he has successfully prosecuted.
April 19, 2013

A woman snickered when Rob Sand stepped into a Denison courtroom last month with his lanky strides and boyish look.

He gets that a lot.

His colleagues at the Iowa Attorney General's Office call him "baby face." For some of the defense attorneys and judges he encounters, it's "Doogie Howser," a nod to the early '90s TV show about a genius teen doctor.

But in his 2 1/2 years as a state prosecutor, Sand has proven that his looks deceive.

The woman who snickered on March 25 was among more than a dozen family members and friends of Michael McKinnon, the former Denison fire chief who stole more than $70,000 from his department by charging it for services his businesses didn't provide and by billing the department directly for a boat motor and power tools, among other items that were for his personal use.

Family and friends were in the courtroom that day to offer support for a man they thought should be let free. He's a family man who made a dumb mistake, they argued.

McKinnon pleaded for a deferred judgment, in which he wouldn't be a felon and could keep his job at a New Mexico college.

But Sand was adamant that McKinnon should go to prison. He laid out the case for it in a sentencing memorandum, an uncommon court filing in which Sand detailed McKinnon's sins as a public official.

The memos are a tool that Sand has employed with success four times now for so-called "white collar" criminals who steal money from taxpayers and the elderly. The memos reveal details about a case that might go unnoticed without a trial, such as in this case, when a mountain of evidence forced McKinnon to make a plea deal.

"This defendant is not someone who made a single poor decision to steal and instantly regretted it," Sand wrote in his memo to a judge. "Instead, this defendant's acts demonstrate an enduring attitude of entitlement, denial, minimization and vindictiveness."

District Judge Jeffrey Poulson agreed and imposed a prison sentence of up to 10 years

"This is a large amount of money, done over a large amount of time, done in a manner of ways. ... All of these things add up to the fact that a deferred judgment is simply not appropriate," the judge said.

One of McKinnon's supporters swore at Sand as he walked out of the courthouse that morning.

Sand, 30, is the youngest prosecutor at the attorney general's office.

He's a Decorah native with a political science degree from Brown University in Rhode Island.

He was accepted to Harvard Law School but chose to study at the University of Iowa, in part, to avoid the large amount of student debt that might have made it impossible to work a lesser-paying public-service job, he said.

Sand describes his work for the attorney general as "my dream job."

"White-collar crime is more often a crime of choice," Sand explained. "Someone who steals a loaf of bread to make ends meet should be punished, but I don't get so excited about that. But those who are well-off, who defraud taxpayers, get me more motivated."

Sand lives in Des Moines but travels the state to prosecute the financial cases - he's the only assistant attorney general whose focus is financial crimes, especially those committed against elderly Iowans.

In one recent case in Linn County, Sand secured guilty pleas for felony theft, securities fraud and money laundering from a Cedar Rapids investment adviser who stole millions of dollars from elderly veterans in a Ponzi-type scheme.

Sand said the man used religion to gain people's trust. He prayed with the victims, called his company Covenant Advisors and legally changed his first name to Noah, Sand said.

Noah Aulwes, 56, was sentenced to up to 10 years in prison in December and was ordered to repay nearly $380,000 in restitution.

Tom H. Miller, the state's deputy attorney general, said it's rare for his office to hire a prosecutor like Sand straight out of college, but that his enthusiasm and comfort in the courtroom has enabled Sand to get early success.

"He's very dedicated to protecting those who can't be protected and will stand up to those who misuse their power and authority," Miller said. "It's important that a message be sent to those who are in positions of trust. That's one thing we're trying to do increasingly, especially with the vulnerable elderly population. That's a major focus of Rob's position."

F. Montgomery Brown, a well-known defense attorney who represented the Denison fire chief, said Sand is an adept lawyer for his age.

"In the cases I've had with him he seems highly competent," Brown said. "He's a good young lawyer."

Sand is the attorney general's liaison to a newly created financial-crimes working group that is a collaboration among Sand's office, the state Division of Criminal Investigation, the U.S. Attorneys General and Homeland Security.

Together, the departments will pool resources to tackle financial crimes that can take months or years to fully uncover.

"It's the kind of interagency cooperation we need to be more effective," Sand said.

In the coming months and years, Sand will continue to grow as an attorney with the help of colleagues who have decades of experience.

Sand will write many more sentencing memos to fully expose the crimes of those he prosecutes.

And he'll do his best to counter that youthful facade that masks his tenacity.

"People are always surprised that there's someone so young who's really serious about this," he said.