WASHINGTON -- A federal judge sentenced Oliver North to work in an inner-city anti-drug program and pay $150,150 in fines Wednesday but said it would do no good to send him to prison for his Iran-Contra felony convictions.
Instead, U.S. District Judge Gerhard Gesell gave the former White House aide a three-year suspended sentence and two years probation for his criminal role in the worst scandal of Ronald Reagan's presidency.
North, a 45-year-old retired Marine lieutenant colonel and Vietnam veteran, appealed for leniency and, during a one-hour hearing, told the judge, 'I have made many mistakes.'
Gesell, who presided over the Pentagon Papers and Watergate trials, told North that he would not go to prison.
'In fact and in your mind, you came up with the scheme that reflected a total distrust of some constitutional values,' the judge said in handing down his sentence. 'I believe you lack full understanding of how the public service has been tarnished. Jail would only harden your misconceptions.'
Gesell also North, 'You are not the fall guy for this tragic breach of the public trust. You are here because of your own conduct when the truth was coming out.'
North, who Reagan once called 'a true American hero,' had faced a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and $750,000 in fines for his May 4 conviction of aiding and abetting the obstruction of Congress, destroying official documents and accepting an illegal gift -- a $13,800 home security system.
Instead, Gesell ordered him to perform 1,200 hours of community service work and pay a fine of $150,000, plus a $150 'special assessment,' in addition to the probation and suspended sentence.
North has vowed to appeal his conviction, meaning the sentence will not take effect for some time. The Pentagon announced it would suspend North's retirement pay of $23,000 a year, pending a final decision, but North is free to continue his public speaking. He is paid about $25,000 a speech.
Gesell ordered North to perform the community service during his two years of probation in a new program to counsel and train Washington youngsters to avoid 'the scourge of drugs' in the nation's capital.
After the hearing, North checked into the U.S. Probation Service office and told a few waiting reporters, 'I look forward to helping anybody deal with the problem of drugs.'
A small crowd of supporters -- chanting 'North, American hero' and 'Ollie! Ollie! Ollie!' -- greeted North and his wife, Betsy, as they left the U.S. District Courthouse.
In addition to the fines and probation, North also was forbidden from holding public office, although there is some question as to whether laws can impose more restrictions than are provided in the Constitution on who can hold elective office.
Independent prosecutor Lawrence Walsh, who has been investigating North for 2 years, issued a terse statement: 'Sentence is uniquely a matter for the judgment of the trial judge. We had a full opportunity to present our views. We have no further comment.'
Before Gesell passed sentence, North told the judge: 'I've devoted nearly all of my life to the service of my country and I would never do anything to knowingly hurt it.'
'I also recognize that I have made many mistakes,' North said. 'But when the prosecutor said I've shown no remorse, he's wrong. I grieve of this. He should not confuse a smile and wave to the ever-present news cameras as a lack of remorse.'
North, who showed a combative and sometimes cocky attitude during televised congressional hearings into the scandal in 1987, asked Gesell to spare him jail so that his wife and four children 'will have a chance to rebuild their future.'
Gesell, for his part, delivered a stern lecture for actions taken in North's mistaken belief that he and his associates at the White House knew better how to take care of the country than the lawmakers elected by American voters.
'Somehow, you got the idea that Congress couldn't be trusted, that the fate of the country was better left to a few, not elected,' Gesell said.
As a result, the November 1986 revelations of the Iran-Contra scandal caused panic, and, the judge said, 'Under the stress of the moment, it was easier for you to choose to play the role of the martyr, which is not a patriotic or heroic act.'
However, Gesell also said, 'I don't believe you were a leader at all, but a low-ranking subordinate working to carry out initiatives of a few cynical superiors.'
The judge told North, 'Community service may make you more conscious of the values that you and your associates overlooked in the elite isolation of the White House.'
North's attorney, Brendan Sullivan, delivered an impassioned plea for his client, saying that during 20 years in the Marine Corps and six years at the NSC, 'He's paid his debt to society. He's paid it in advance.'
Walsh's trial team, led by John Keker, walked quickly out of the courthouse and refused comment on the sentence. During the hearing, Keker urged Gesell to mete out a prison term because North has shown 'a lack of remorse,' and to send a message to government officials that they can expect 'swift and sure punishment' when they break the law.
Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., chairman of the House's special Iran-Contra investigating committee, said, 'I was impressed in Judge Gesell's decision with the emphasis he put on the responsibility of Colonel North's superiors.'
Gesell 'put a great weight in his sentencing decision on the fact that Colonel North was not the leader, that he was in fact acting under direct authority or under the cloak of authority -- at least he thought he was acting with the president's approval,' Hamilton said.
However, conservative Rep. Robert Dornan, R-Calif., who was in the courtroom for the sentencing said, 'I believe he was the fall guy. Ronald Reagan is still my hero.'
The hour-long sentencing hearing ended a 16-month legal journey started when North was indicted in March 1988 on felony charges related to the secret U.S. arms sales to Iran, and the private network he operated to arm and supply the Nicaraguan Contra rebels when official U.S. aid was banned.
Sentencing had been set for June 23 but was delayed for a ruling from Gesell on a defense request for a new trial based on a juror's misstatements on a sworn questionnaire. The judge decided Friday the juror's actions did not affect the fairness of North's trial.
The May 4 verdict against North was the product of a trial in which North took the stand in his own defense for six days and insisted he believed he never did anything illegal in carrying out secret initiatives for the Reagan White House.
North was tried on 12 felony counts, including obstructing Congress, lying to the attorney general, converting more than $4,300 in traveler's checks to his own use and tax fraud.
But after 12 days of deliberations, the nine women and three men on the jury -- selected because they almost nothing about the Iran-Contra scandal that captured headlines for more than a year -- found him guilty only of three counts.
Walsh still is pursuing investigations into the scandal. Richard Secord, a private operative for North, also has been charged with Iran-Contra crimes, as has his business partner Albert Hakim, former CIA agent Joseph Fernandez and North's former boss, ex-national security adviser John Poindexter.
Poindexter is scheduled to be tried this fall; no trial dates have been set for the others.
North was the fourth person convicted as a result of the 2 -year, $15 million investigation into the scandal by Walsh.
In 1987, fund-raiser Carl Channell and public relations executive Richard Miller pleaded guilty to defrauding the government by raising money to make illegal weapons purchases for the Contras.
Robert McFarlane, Poindexter's precedessor as national security adviser, was sentenced March 3 to two years of probation and was fined $20,000 for four misdemeanor counts of withholding information from Congress about North's secret efforts to arm the Contras.
The scandal arose from the Reagan administration's efforts to secure two foreign objectives -- freedom for American hostages in Lebanon and support for the Nicaraguan rebels -- without the knowledge of Congress or the public.
Reagan approved and North engineered the U.S. arms sales to Iran, aimed at buying the liberty of the hostages held by pro-Iranian terrorists. At the same time, North operated the private Contra resupply network, financed mainly by third countries, private money and excess profits from the Iran arms sales.
The two operations were exposed Nov. 25, 1986; North was fired that day, but Reagan telephoned later to call North 'a true American hero.'
A year of congressional investigation concluded that a 'cabal of zealots' ran the operation without Reagan's explicit knowledge. But North's trial produced information that the former president knew far more about the secret dealings that had been acknowledged.
North's lawyers introduced documents suggesting that Reagan and Vice President Bush offered countries, mainly in Central America, extra U.S. aid in exchange for their secret assistance for the Contras. Bush vehemently denied he was involved in any 'quid pro quo' on behalf of the rebels.