NBC 5 Investigates has learned former Dallas County Schools superintendent, Rick Sorrells, has been moved from prison to home confinement, after serving only about one-third of his seven-year sentence behind bars.
Sorrells took millions of dollars in bribes in a scheme that cost taxpayers a fortune and ultimately shut down DCS, the special school district that once operated student transportation in Dallas and many surrounding communities.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons tells NBC 5, that Sorrells was transferred to home confinement in March under a COVID-19 policy designed to reduce the number of inmates in federal prisons.
For security reasons, prison officials won't say if Sorrells is at home or in a halfway house. But, two sources familiar with his movements told NBC 5 that Sorrells is living at a private home located in Dallas County.
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DCS EMPLOYEES DISAPPOINTED IN SORRELLS MOVE
News of Sorrells move to more comfortable quarters angers some former DCS employees, who see this as a big break for a man who inflicted major damage both on taxpayers and on workers who lost jobs after voters elected to close the agency in the wake of the scandal. In recent weeks, some in the community have reached out to NBC5 Investigates asking if we could confirm rumors, and even reported sightings of Sorrells in the Dallas area.
“He had caused a lot of grief,” said Delna Bryan, a former union leader who once represented workers including school bus drivers at DCS.
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Bryan can’t believe Sorrells prison stay was so short.
After just 30 months of an 84-month sentence, The Federal Bureau of Prisons moved Sorrells to home confinement instead.
“Can he look himself in the mirror every day and say that justice is being done? I don't think so,” said Bryan.
At the time, Federal Judge Barbara Lynn deemed Sorrells the "most culpable" for the bribery scandal that destroyed DCS, the 171-year-old agency that provided school bus transportation for nine districts.
In court documents, Sorrells admitted taking more than $3 million dollars in bribes. Federal prosecutors told the judge it might be the largest known bribe amount ever paid to a United States official.
According to prosecutors, Sorrells spent some of the cash on a Maserati and a fancy apartment in New Orleans where NBC 5 Investigates found him in 2017.
The apartment, we discovered, was next door to one belonging to Robert Leonard, the school bus camera company CEO who later admitted bribing Sorrells in exchange for contracts that ultimately cost Dallas County taxpayers an estimated $125 million dollars in losses.
“One of the basic elements of why we even sentence people to long sentences is to punish them,” said Jay Dewald, a former federal prosecutor who was not involved in the DCS case.
Dewald says, in the past, federal inmates could only serve about the final 10% of their sentence at home.
NEW PRISON POLICIES MAKE SORRELLS MOVE POSSIBLE
But a new Bureau of Prison’s COVID-19 policy has made more inmates eligible for early transfers along with a 2018 federal law called the First Step Act, which was designed to move more non-violent offenders to home confinement or even give them the opportunity to earn reduced sentences.
Dewald says the recent changes have opened the door, even for corrupt public officials to serve more of their time at home.
“Now it's benefiting some folks who I think everyone would generally agree, do not deserve that kind of benefit of getting out early,” said Dewald.
Court records show Sorrells began asking for home confinement just seven months into his sentence.
He first petitioned the prison warden saying he was at "high risk" of "severe complications" from COVID-19 because he is in his 60s and has chronic health conditions.
In January, Sorrells then wrote to a federal judge asking for "compassionate release" saying the prison never responded to his request.
Sorrells told the judge he had a "mild case of COVID" in prison in 2020 and then had a "severe allergic reaction to the COVID-19 vaccine" preventing him from being fully vaccinated.
"I am asking that my sentence not be a death sentence," Sorrells wrote.
Before the judge could rule on that request, the Bureau of Prisons transferred Sorrells to home confinement.
In 2019, a group of former DCS employees pleaded with the government to give Sorrells the maximum prison time possible and hold him accountable for paying back millions of taxpayers lost.
“We all worked so hard to make people proud of Dallas County Schools and then we find out he's a crook,” said former DCS employee, Mike Williams, in a 2019 NBC 5 report.
Williams recently told NBC 5, "I am disappointed that Rick Sorrells will not serve his entire sentence in prison. Moreover, I am appalled that restitution to the taxpayers of Dallas County has not been completely paid."
QUESTIONS ABOUT STATUS OF SORRELLS RESTITUTION
Federal prosecutors declined to say how much Sorrells still owes in restitution.
Court records show in 2020 he had only paid about $500 dollars of the $125 million in restitution he's been ordered to pay along with two other defendants convicted in the case.
In January, records show Sorrells received credit for about $50,000 from the sale of property the FBI seized during the investigation.
Beyond that $50,000, it’s not clear how much Sorrells has paid.
Meanwhile, court records show Sorrells has continued to receive a $5,000 per month state pension from his job at DCS but prosecutors have been working to garnish a portion of those checks.
Jay Dewald expects the U.S, Attorney's office will keep pursuing Sorrells for more payments to prevent him from living a life of luxury, even if he's no longer behind bars.
“I think I think they're going to stay on top of it having been there, having seen it, I have that level of faith in their in their commitment and their resolve,” said Dewald.
“I want it paid back and every penny of it paid back for all the harm that he has done, said Bryan, the former union leader.
NBC 5 Investigates made several attempts to reach Rick Sorrells. Through an attorney, he declined to comment.
Sorrells apologized when he was sentenced in 2019 saying he made a mistake and begged the judge for forgiveness.
At the time, Judge Lynn acknowledged that the $125 million in restitution would likely never be paid in full.
The Bureau of Prisons did not elaborate on why it decided to release Sorrells to home confinement but pointed to its policy for increasing the use of home confinement under COVID-19. A spokesman also declined to say what sort of restrictions Sorrells is under while he is in home confinement.
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