SIOUX CITY — Barely settled into his seat, Chief U.S. District Judge Leonard Strand told attorneys Thursday he was not convinced that a man who threw a class of water at U.S. Rep. Steve King should be placed on probation.
Even though the U.S. Attorney’s Office and Blake Gibbins’ attorney had reached a plea agreement calling for the Colorado man to receive probation rather than a jail sentence, Strand said he was mindful of the public perception of any sentence for what he called a “disgusting and cowardly” act.
How would people who do not have access to all the details of the case, Strand asked, view probation? Was probation a strong enough penalty to deter others from assaulting elected officials?
“Are they going to understand the nuances (of the case) or are they going to think he got away with it?” Strand asked at Gibbins’ sentencing hearing in U.S. District Court in Sioux City.
It was with some reluctance, Strand said, that he sentenced Gibbins to two years’ probation. Gibbons also must complete 200 hours of public service within the first year.
King, R-Iowa, was not present at the hearing. He was traveling to Iowa on Thursday, an aide said, and likely wouldn’t have a public statement about the sentencing until Friday or later.
Gibbins, 27, pleaded guilty in September to a misdemeanor count of assault on a congressman.
An Iowa native now living in Lafayette, Colo., Gibbins approached a table where King was seated at a Fort Dodge restaurant March 22, asked King if he was Steve King and then threw a cup of water at him. The water splashed on the Republican congressman and another person sitting at the table.
Gibbins was restrained by a customer, then arrested after police arrived.
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Though a federal sentencing formula determined a prison sentence of up to six months was appropriate, Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim Duax and defense attorney Paul Statler agreed in sentencing memorandums that probation was appropriate.
It was a tough recommendation for the U.S. Justice Department, Duax said.
King was not injured, he said, but the incident has affected how he feels in public.
Duax said Gibbins will face serious consequences besides prison. He now has a criminal conviction, which could disqualify him for jobs he applies for after completing college.
Duax said he can’t speak for everyone in the public, but Gibbins’ prosecution in itself sends a message to others who may consider assaulting a congressman.
“They know now you are going to be hauled into court, you are going to be arrested,” Duax said.
Statler said Gibbins’ actions were out of character, and he hinted that mental health conditions were a contributing factor. Gibbins’ father had been killed in a car accident, and Gibbins was in Iowa for the funeral when he approached King. Gibbins also had no previous criminal history.
“This was an aberration,” Statler said, adding that Gibbins was a target of death threats and other acts of violence on social media websites after the incident.
“He will carry this with him for a long time,” Statler said.
Gibbins spoke briefly to Strand before he was sentenced, saying that throwing water on King was “a rare and unique decision” he made.
“I spent a lot of time considering what my actions mean to me and the public,” he said.
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Strand said he believed Gibbins’ actions were out of character, given his lack of criminal history, yet reaching a sentencing decision was not easy.
“I have given this a lot of thought,” Strand said, adding that the U.S. Attorney’s recommendation of probation made a difference. “It is reprehensible. I have no tolerance for political violence or any kind of violence.
“This is a very unique case.”
Gibbins declined to comment after the hearing.
Statler said Gibbins would like to send an apology to King but had not yet done so because a protection order prohibits him from contacting King.
With the case now concluded, Statler said, he would contact the U.S. Attorney’s Office to see how Gibbins could apologize to King while not violating the conditions of the order.