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updated: 11/30/2012 6:52 PM

Beavers can say he repaid money if he testifies

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  • William Beavers

    William Beavers

Associated Press

An influential Chicago politician can tell jurors he put cash back into his campaign coffers and amended his tax returns as part of his defense at his upcoming tax-evasion trial, but only if he takes the stand and speaks to jurors directly, a judge ruled Friday.

Cook County Commissioner William Beavers, whose trial starts on Monday with jury selection, took steps to repay the money he took and to update his returns only after he learned in 2009 that authorities were investigating his alleged misuse of campaign money.

Prosecutors asked the presiding judge to prohibit any mention of the repayments, which Beavers' lawyers have suggested will be the cornerstone of the case they present to jurors. But Judge James Zagel said at a Friday status hearing that Beavers should be able to attempt to argue he simply made an inadvertent mistake.

A suspect's state of mind -- which the repayments could shed light on -- is relevant in trials that revolve around failure to include full information on tax returns, Zagel said. He added that it wouldn't be as relevant in a less nuanced case such as one accusing a defendant of "stabbing someone in the chest with a steak knife."

The fact that Beavers only scrambled to put the money back in his campaign coffers after he knew federal investigators were after him could also help prosecutors at trial, the judge said, pointing out that they could portray it as a desperate act of a man who knew he had committed a crime.

Beavers has denounced prosecutors in public, once comparing the actions of then-U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald to "Gestapo-type tactics." He hasn't committed to taking the stand, but the condition that key defense evidence must come from him makes it more likely.

The 77-year-old Democrat is accused of diverting tens of thousands of dollars from campaign accounts for personal use without reporting it as income on tax returns and of then attempting to cover up the deeds.

The judge did side with prosecutors on another matter: He said they could talk about how Beavers was an avid gambler.

Prosecutors said at Friday's hearing that Beavers would sometimes draw repeatedly from his campaign funds on a single day at a casino while his losses mounted. Gambling, they say, was the motive underpinning Beavers' misuse of funds.

But Zagel cautioned prosecutors to not even hint during trial that Beavers' gambling was in any way illegal, immoral or untoward -- since, he said, that could unfairly influence jurors' verdict.

"You can make your point without throwing bricks," he said.

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