FLORENCE, Colo. (AP) — A tight-knit Colorado church community is campaigning to free six businessmen who were convicted of fraud because of the way they kept their firm going as they tried to market crime-fighting software to the New York Police Department, the Department of Homeland Security and others.
The Colorado Springs Fellowship Church argues that the group headed by software developer Gary Walker — like all six a church member — is the victim of a conspiracy.
But federal prosecutors contended — and a judge agreed — that it’s Walker who masterminded a conspiracy in which 42 companies he hired to handle his payroll were deceived into working with him for free as he tried to sell his software.
The companies lost more than $5 million. Prosecutors said more businesses could have been targeted if the FBI hadn’t raided Walker’s Colorado Springs business, IRP, for Investigative Resource Planning, in 2005.
Walker and his colleagues were convicted of conspiracy to commit fraud, mail fraud and wire fraud. All were sent to prison in 2012, with Walker receiving more than an 11-year sentence.
Church members and relatives, some of whom loaned or gave money to Walker for his business, are waging a publicity campaign on behalf of the men they call the IRP6.
In March, about 50 protesters demonstrated outside a downtown Denver hotel where the U.S. district judge who sentenced Walker, Christine Arguello, was being honored for her career by the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame.
IRP6 supporters said it rankled them to see Arguello lauded. Their protests have taken a personal tone, with campaigners digging into the professional backgrounds of the judge and prosecutors in search of connections they see as suspicious, and calling for a court clerk to face charges because they claim passages from the trial transcript are missing. They point to lack of media interest in the case as a sign of a possible larger conspiracy involving journalists.
Rose Banks, the pastor who leads the Fellowship Church and Walker’s mother-in-law, said she was glad her husband, a Vietnam veteran, died before the trial. Her son David Banks, Walker’s chief operations officer, was also sentenced to more than 11 years.
“It looked as if the time he gave to the military was wasted,” she said of her husband. “His own son wasn’t treated fairly.”
Supporters also say they wonder whether the men faced special scrutiny because of their race. Walker and four others convicted in the case are black, the sixth is white.
For some IT entrepreneurs, race can be a factor in their efforts to get investors to back their businesses, said Angela Benton, who founded NewME Accelerator as an incubator for minority entrepreneurs.
Black IT entrepreneurs often struggle because investors looking for the next sure thing hunt for profiles that match already successful businesses, which can leave out people who don’t look like Mark Zuckerberg or who did not attend Stanford, said Benton, who is not involved with IRP or the IRP case.
When Benton read about the IRP6, she sensed a scrappy refusal to take no for an answer in Walker’s makeup.
“Not to condone what they did,” Benton said. “But they were showing a lot of the characteristics a lot of entrepreneurs have.”
Many of the men convicted alongside Walker grew up in military families that have known each other for years, and some had military careers themselves. It’s that combination of family, church and career that binds the community they left behind when they went to prison.
A visitor to the church won’t find anyone, from the pastor to young children who know one of Walker’s co-defendants as a beloved Bible school superintendent, who believes the IRP6 are guilty.
Walker, who worked in information technology for two decades, said in an interview at the Federal Prison Camp in Florence that he has no hard evidence he is the victim of a conspiracy. But he insists he is innocent of leading a criminal enterprise.
He and the others represented themselves at trial, refusing to believe they’d be convicted, and all have appealed those convictions.
The minimum security facility where the six are being held is next door to a maximum security prison where Walker once prayed with inmates as part of an outreach program run by his church.
A compact man who speaks softly, Walker said he saw his arrangements with the staffing companies as akin to an extension of credit. He said he never hid from them that he had little revenue but stressed to them he hoped to repay his debts.
At trial, prosecutors did not argue that IRP developed communications software Walker said would make it easier for investigators to store and share information to fight crime and terrorism. IRP even hired a retired New York Police Department IT specialist to help find a market.
Walker started on a first version of his software in 1999, and by the early 2000s IRP executives were making sales calls on New York police, Homeland Security and other law enforcement agencies. Walker hired engineers through the staffing companies to help him perfect the software. When government business did not come in, he said, the staffing companies refused to extend their contracts — and so IRP would turn to others.
“It just kept rolling,” Walker said.
“I do believe the defendants believed they had a legitimate product that was viable,” Arguello stated at trial. “They just couldn’t get the funding they needed to develop it. So, they concocted this fraudulent scheme to get it.”
Walker told the judge at his sentencing that he still believed that “any day, literally, God would bring that contract that would give us the funds to pay on our debts.”
While IRP6 supporters produce an Internet radio show discussing the case, others insist Walker received an appropriate sentence — including the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Denver and Renee Rodriguez, who owns a Pueblo staffing firm that lost $29,000 to IRP.
“I’m glad to see that our justice system didn’t give up,” Rodriguez said.
During the trial, Walker said, he heard prosecutors describe him as overly optimistic.
“I never knew,” he said, “that that was a crime.”
By Donna Bryson, AP Writer (© Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)