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Navy vet arrested on passport fraud charges rebuffs feds' offer

By Greg Botelho, CNN
  • Elisha Leo Dawkins doesn't accept an offer to enter a pretrial diversion program
  • A passport fraud charge against him would be dropped had he done the program
  • His friend says Dawkins didn't want to admit any guilt, wants to "stay the course"

(CNN) -- A U.S. Navy veteran, arrested for alleged passport fraud, will go on trial after rebuffing Friday an offer that could have led to the dropping of criminal charges against him.

Former Petty Officer 2nd Class Elisha Leo Dawkins could be sentenced to 10 years in prison if convicted for lying five years ago on a passport application, as federal prosecutors contend. Attorney Clark Mervis claims his client's actions were understandable and innocent -- and that he plans to defend them when the trial begins July 12.

Dawkins was given the option to avoid jail time when the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Florida proposed that he complete a supervised pretrial diversion program, according to Mervis. The proposal was made public at a Tuesday court hearing, with Dawkins given until Friday to decide whether he'd accept or reject the offer.

"Flash" Gordon Schwartz, a Jacksonville accountant and a former Navy pilot, said that his friend rejected the government's offer because of the stipulations it carried over 18 months and the feeling it might suggest wrongdoing.

"He told me, 'I haven't done anything wrong,'" said Schwartz, who said he has Dawkins' power of attorney. "Elisha wanted to stay the course."

The U.S. Attorney's office, which has previously declined comment about what it calls an ongoing case, did not have any immediate comment on Friday's developments.

Despite his client's having "respectfully declined" the government's offer to join the U.S. Probation Service-administered program by Friday's deadline, Mervis said that "confidential discussions with the government" are continuing.

"At this point, we are preparing for trial, and there are always ongoing discussions," Mervis said.

One factor that had complicated the case, but may no longer be an issue, is Dawkins' immigration status.

After having served one tour in Iraq in addition to his service in Cuba and elsewhere, Dawkins had recently learned that he may not be a U.S. citizen, Mervis said. Dawkins had been told by his mother, who is from the Bahamas, that he was born in Miami, and he had a Social Security number and birth certificate, according to Schwartz.

Mervis said Friday that his client learned that the Department of Homeland Security lifted the immigration detainer against him, meaning he won't be pursued on immigration-related charges.

"Lifting the detainer means that we can now get him out of incarceration and take other actions, without fearing him being detained," said Mervis, noting that supporters are working to raise the needed $10,000 of a $100,000 bond to secure his release.

That puts the focus on the passport fraud claim.

The grand jury indictment claims that Dawkins "did knowingly and willfully make a false statement" on an April 2006 passport application completed in Miami-Dade County. Specifically, Dawkins said that he had never before requested a U.S. passport, "when in truth ... and as the defendant ... knew, he had previously applied," according to the indictment.

The U.S. State Department calls passports "the most highly valued travel document in the world." The department opened 5,282 investigations into passport and visa fraud worldwide last year, leading to 1,680 arrests.

Schwartz said that his friend Dawkins started filling out a passport application in 2004 but didn't finish it. When he filled out another application two years later, Dawkins checked "no" next to the question about whether he'd completed an application previously -- assuming that was the right answer, since his previous attempt wasn't complete.

He got the passport. But five years later, in March, a warrant was issued for Dawkins' arrest -- at the same time he was at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba working as a military photographer, according to Schwartz. He returned to the United States on April 10, and was detained nine days later, said Dianne Rinehardt, a veteran who met him while both were in nursing school.

Dawkins has been in a federal detention center in Miami ever since. During that time, Schwartz claims that the U.S. Treasury Department has also gone after him -- in that case, for failing to pay down his student loans while behind bars.

In recent weeks, his case has gained national attention with friends, politicians, past colleagues and strangers among the hundreds supporting a man who joined the U.S. Army upon graduating from high school. He served a tour in Iraq, and then joined the Navy in part so he could attend nursing school and re-enlist, Schwartz said.

Mervis said the military, in particularl, "has rallied behind (Dawkins) 100%."

"I think they want him out (of prison) and they want him back in (the military)," the Florida attorney said. "This is someone who has stood in battle with them, and they respect him and they are not backing away."

A document, provided to CNN by Schwartz as authorized by U.S. Navy Vice Adm. M.E. Ferguson III, indicates that Dawkins had secret clearance while at Guantanamo. In an evaluation report, one superior lauds Dawkins as "a team player ... with a strong work ethic and desire to learn" and recommends him for promotion.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, raised such positive performance evaluations when he pressed the federal government for more information on Dawkins' case in an address Wednesday on the Senate floor.

He spoke in favor of the Dream Act bill, which would give children who have grown up in the United States an opportunity to gain citizenship despite their family's immigration status. Nelson also challenged that whether it was fair for Dawkins to get 10 years for his passport application.

"All John Dillinger served in prison was eight and a half years on a conviction for assault and battery with intent to rob and conspiracy to commit a felony," the senator said.

Schwartz said that his friend was "in total shock" and grateful his story had "gone viral" and appeared in local and national media outlets, not to mention galvanized support from thousands.

"He's been pretty amazed by it," added Mervis. "We have been getting a lot of support."

Unless there's an out-of-court resolution before then, Mervis said, the trial should take three days. Schwartz said he hopes federal prosecutors change their tact, drop the charges and release the military veteran by Monday -- Independence Day.

If he is exonerated, Schwarz said that his friend's time in federal custody has not changed his plans to finish his schooling and rejoin the U.S. military, this time as a nurse and naval officer.

"His resolve is not unchanged," said Schwartz. "He's going to take the nursing exam and apply (to rejoin) the Navy."

CNN's Phil Gast contributed to this report.