SAN DIEGO — A federal judge sentenced two owners of defense contracting firms in Poway to three years each in federal prison Monday for their roles in a bribery and fraud scandal that went on for nearly a decade at North Island Naval Air Station.
The prison terms were handed down by U.S. District Judge Larry A. Burns to Joanna Loehr, 52, the owner of Centerline Inc. and Robert Ehnow, 46, the owner of L & N Industrial Tool & Supply.
Both were found guilty of bribery and conspiracy in March by a federal jury in San Diego. Their convictions and sentencing close the investigation into the bribery ring that ended up netting 11 people — five former Navy workers at the Fleet Readiness Center Southwest on the Coronado base and six owners or employees of defense contractors who did business at the base.
Loehr and Ehnow were the only defendants to go to trial. Others, including Donald Vangundy, 54, a civilian worker with the Navy who prosecutors said was the ringleader, pleaded guilty before trial and cooperated with the government. Several testified at Ehnow’s and Loehr’s trial.
The case centered on bribes contractors gave to Vangundy and other workers in the form of cash, gift cards, fancy electronics and checks. In return, the companies received millions of dollars in government business, prosecutors said.
The scheme involved numerous false billings in which the contracting companies would disguise the bribes as legitimate work orders under contracts the firms had with the Navy. Often, the fake invoices masking the bribes included a markup of 20 percent to 25 percent by the contracting firms.
Kevin McDermott, the lawyer for Ehnow, said that Vangundy was the driver behind the scheme and that the judge seemed to take that into consideration, as well as his client’s record of military service. Ehnow retired from the Marines as a lieutenant colonel after more than 20 years, including tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, his lawyer said.
Ehnow said he purchased L & N to launch a second career as he was departing the Marines. By that time, Vangundy had already been collecting bribes from contractors, including John Newman, the former owner of L & N who stayed on as a consultant after Ehnow bought the company.
“Vangundy had this pay-to-play attitude going on long before my client ever showed up,” McDermott said after the hearing. “That was the table that was set. Unfortunately, my client sat down at that table and partook. But the judge, I think, recognized this was a circumstance where guys like Vangundy allowed this sort of thing to happen.”
Vangundy is serving 41 months in prison, the longest handed out in the case.
Attempts to reach lawyers for Loehr were unsuccessful Monday evening.
Federal prosecutors were seeking much longer sentences of nearly 12 years for Ehnow and nine years for Loehr. They cited not only the value of the bribes the owners delivered but also the return. “The fruits of these bribery transactions was these companies got lots of other business,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Huie.
L & N received $3 million in total payments from the Defense Department, prosecutors said, while Centerline received $1.8 million in payments.