As I write, I don’t know what to expect from disgraced Aspen Skiing Co. executive and former Aspen City Council member Derek Johnson’s sentencing hearing, which took place Tuesday in district court, after my deadline for this column. But at one level, the legal punishment assigned to his crime of methodically stealing over $6 million worth of high performance demo skis and dumping them on the local market at a discount while reaping a $2.4 million plus profit over a decade and a half really doesn’t matter.
The lasting result of his, and let’s not forget his wife’s, pernicious deceit is division within our community (Kerri Johnson’s sentencing is set for Feb. 18). In my view, Johnson deserves prison time, and I am not alone in that sentiment. The personal devastation to his family will always remain his and his wife’s fault alone. It is not the community’s responsibility, and it does not reflect compassion so much as a kind of collective narcissism, to advocate for judicial leniency under such circumstances. But 29 letters to the court pleading for that leniency in the form of a short, local jail term as opposed to the prison sentence recommended by in the court’s sentencing guidelines prove that opinions, and experiences of Derek’s time and work in Aspen, vary and divide us greatly.
The Johnsons’ “white collar” crime was far from victimless. Recent news accounts describe how they carried out their felonious initiative under the noses of Derek’s SkiCo bosses. Like peeling a particularly pungent onion that causes you to tear up over and over again from the revelations of each succeeding layer’s painful removal, these stories reveal the depth and context of a premeditated criminal enterprise that fueled the Johnsons’ “poser” lifestyle.
It’s good to see the Aspen Skiing Co. own its share of responsibility for this sad episode, as news reports summarizing SkiCo’s input to the sentencing process demonstrate. At one basic level, SkiCo’s initial failure to bring D&E's (Derek Johnson’s and Eric Bergstrom’s company that SkiCo purchased so many years ago) inventory management into compliance with standard business practices created Derek’s exploitive opportunity. The fact that the company initially permitted Derek to sell skis they considered valueless, as the company described in its communication to the court, demonstrates that it was not just a victim, but also an unintentionally catalyst to the Johnsons’ crime. That permission showed Derek how to get away with his scam. Once he knew what he could get away with, it was a simple process of executing a clandestine side business with his wife’s complicity.
Don't get me wrong, The Johnsons did the deed. Had Derek been a loyal and well-intentioned executive who understands the importance of internal controls, he would have adamantly ensured that his department received a clean corporate inventory reconciliation of all rental skis every year — for his own and his staff’s protection. Instead Derek apparently used his position of power at SkiCo to intimidate subordinates and co-workers who questioned his methods. Consequently no one revealed his actions, apparently due to fear of his retribution, until almost 15 years had passed.
The adverse impact of the Johnsons’ crime extends well beyond SkiCo's walls to the lives of working-class residents throughout the Roaring Fork Valley. As an investor in a local online retail company that sells skis and snowboards, among other recreational equipment, I can credibly argue that the Johnsons’ dumping of over 8,000 pairs of high performance skis on the local marketplace over the past two decades harmed me personally. But that harm pales in comparison to the harm done to our small company’s employees, people who work every day to support their families under the presumption of a fair marketplace.
If its leaders so choose, SkiCo’s substantial financial strength permits it to devise a way to compensate employees who missed out on bonuses (as one letter to the court described) over the years due to the company’s negligent contribution to the Johnsons’ crime; and I hope they do. Small local companies lacking SkiCo’s virtually unlimited capital have no such option, and there are many such impacted companies in the valley.
Which leads me to a final seminal question: Are the Johnsons worthy of forgiveness for their crimes? Perhaps it surprises you that my answer is yes. We are all worthy of consideration for moral forgiveness. It’s possible to forgive the Johnsons in a moral sense and still hold them accountable for their actions under the law.
Too often we conclude that moral forgiveness requires legal leniency. It does not. Conflating moral forgiveness with legal leniency in the sentencing of crimes is a misunderstanding of the concept of forgiveness. Borne of a narcissistic drive, to publicly display compassion through lenient sentencing demonstrates neither moral compassion nor fairness under the law. Instead it prioritizes a selfish desire to be viewed as forgiving over holding criminals accountable for harming their victims. Hopefully that’s not what happened yesterday at Derek Johnson’s sentencing hearing.
Criminal sentences can only deter future crime if they are actually imposed. Whether he got it yesterday or not, Derek Johnson earned a prison sentence with his crime, not just a local jail term. That doesn’t mean his victims should not forgive Derek and his wife for their crimes. Forgiveness is the only way to heal community division in the wake of such a heinous act, and the only path back to emotional and spiritual well-being for the victims.
And let’s hope SkiCo has fixed its inventory management system in the meantime.
Paul Menter can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org