Stanley R. Lerner--the 25-year-old Beverly Hills art dealer who helped authorities crack a major art fraud case--was sentenced Monday to three years in federal prison for cocaine dealing, although U.S. District Judge Robert M. Tagasuki said the time could be served in a halfway house.
The judge pronounced the sentence, which also included a $50,000 fine and five years probation, behind closed doors. He agreed to hold the session in private after defense lawyer Jonathan Ash said confidential information, presumably relating to Lerner's role as a government informant, would be discussed during the proceedings.
Tagasuki declined to discuss the sentencing. His decision to close the entire hearing--to which the government did not object--was highly uncommon, according to Robert Garcia, a former federal prosecutor who now teaches criminal law at UCLA.
"Certainly, a lot of sentencing information can be maintained confidential," Garcia said. "But everything from start to finish? That is extremely unusual."
The hearing lasted nearly an hour and included testimony from Lerner and an FBI agent who was involved in the cocaine case. Ash said afterward that Lerner, who was imprisoned briefly after his arrest, told the judge he felt he had been rehabilitated.
"He basically told the court that the brief taste that he got of jail in the inception of this case made him realize how futile a life that was," Ash said.
Neither Ash nor prosecutor Gary Lincenberg would say whether Lerner, who faced a maximum of 40 years in prison and a $2-million fine, received a lighter sentence because he had helped authorities. However, Lerner's co-conspirator, Mark Kopel, is serving a four-year term at a minimum-security federal prison camp in Boron, Calif.
According to Lincenberg, whether Lerner can actually serve his time in a "community correctional center," or halfway house, is up to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, which places prisoners. He said it is likely the bureau will follow the judge's suggestion. Lincenberg said it is possible that Lerner, who must turn himself in July 30, will be able to continue to work during his term and may be able to go home on weekends.
A UCLA dropout who grew up in a middle-income family in Montebello, Lerner has had a business career that is studded with a variety of ventures--from a compact disc store to a company that tried to market an at-home AIDS test to his current job as president and sole owner of TrianglE Galleries of Newport Beach and Beverly Hills.
Before his arrest in November, 1988, his fast-track lifestyle included expensive cars, a luxury apartment overlooking Wilshire Boulevard, and a suite on the 27th floor of a Century City office tower.
Last August, Lerner pleaded guilty to federal charges that he conspired to distribute five kilograms of cocaine. Shortly afterward, he approached authorities with information that helped them arrest two art dealers he once did business with--Lee Sonnier, the former manager of the Beverly Hills branch of the Upstairs Gallery; and Frank De Marigny, an independent art broker who earlier this month pleaded no contest to charges of perjury, grand theft and forgery.
Lerner arranged an undercover sting in which De Marigny was arrested, and would have been a key witness against him had De Marigny gone to trial.