The stars of the reality TV show “Alaskan Bush People” admitted to lying about their Alaska residency and absences from the state on their Permanent Fund Dividend applications from 2010 through 2013.
During a change of plea hearing in Juneau Superior Court late Wednesday afternoon, 62-year-old Billy Brown — the patriarch of the Brown family featured on the Discovery Channel show — and his son, 31-year-old Joshua Brown, both pleaded guilty to reduced, misdemeanor counts of unsworn falsification in the second degree. Members of the Brown family were indicted by a Juneau grand jury for PFD fraud last year.
The Browns participated in the hearing by phone from Seattle. Their attorneys and the prosecutor went over a proposed plea deal for Judge Philip Pallenberg, who has yet to accept the deal. Wednesday’s hearing was cut short and is scheduled to continue this afternoon.
“Alaskan Bush People” follows Billy Brown, his wife Amora and their seven grown children living in the Alaskan wilderness, saying they were “born and raised wild.” A description of the show online says the family is “so far removed from civilization that they often go six to nine months of the year without seeing an outsider. They’ve developed their own accent and dialect, refer to themselves as a ‘wolf pack,’ and at night, all nine sleep together in a one-room cabin.”
In fall 2014, a Juneau grand jury charged six of the family members — Billy, 52-year-old Amora, Joshua, 28-year-old Solomon, 25-year-old Gabriel and 23-year-old Noah — with multiple felonies for unsworn falsification and theft in connection to PFD fraud.
On Wednesday, Assistant Attorney General Lisa Kelley, with the state of Alaska’s Office of Special Prosecutions and Appeals, told Judge Pallenberg that Billy Brown applied for PFDs for himself and his minor children in 2010-2013 when he wasn’t eligible. Most Alaskans who live in the state for the full calendar year are eligible for a PFD check, which is a cut of the state’s oil revenue money.
Kelley said Billy Brown had left the state in October 2009 and did not return until August 2012.
“Contrary to what was stated on his application for the PFD, he did not in fact have a principle place of abode on Mossman Island between the years of 2009 and 2013,” she said.
She said both Billy and Joshua Brown also lied about not being absent from the state for more than 180 days on their applications for 2011-2013.
Both Billy and Joshua Brown pleaded guilty to one consolidated count of second-degree unsworn falsification, a class ‘A’ misdemeanor that can be punishable by up to a year in prison and a $10,000 fine.
A plea deal in place calls for the Browns to pay back all the PFD money that they and their children received for those years, totaling $7,956. A representative from the Permanent Fund Division collected four of those checks on Wednesday in the courtroom. The other two are due within a week. The family will never again be allowed to apply for a PFD.
For Billy and Joshua Brown, the deal would require they receive a 6-month suspended jail sentence and serve two years on unsupervised probation. They would each have to complete 40 hours of unpaid community service that cannot be filmed.
The other family members’ cases would be dismissed, should each of them complete 40 hours of community service.
Judge Pallenberg noted that PFD fraud is a “serious matter” and he will consider whether or not to impose jail time. He noted he has in the past for felony convictions.
“It’s theft from every resident in the state of Alaska,” he said.
The hearing will reconvene 3:30 p.m. today.