An Illinois lawmaker who faced nearly 20 felony bank-fraud charges that could have landed him in prison for decades pleaded guilty Monday to a single misdemeanor tax charge for shortchanging the Internal Revenue Service of $3,782.
State Rep. LaShawn Ford's case was a rare instance of government attorneys backing away from felonies at the core of their case and letting a defendant short-circuit a trial by pleading guilty to a far lesser crime. Prosecutors offered no explanation for the change of heart.
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As part of the deal, the 42-year-old Chicago Democrat pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Chicago to one new count of delivering a false federal income tax return, which carries a maximum sentence of a year behind bars.
Prosecutors will dismiss the eight bank fraud counts and nine counts of submitting false information at Ford's Nov. 11 sentencing. Each felony count carried up to 30 years in prison. A felony conviction would also have resulted in Ford automatically losing his seat in the legislature.
Outside court later Monday, Ford smiled as he and his attorney addressed reporters.
"This is a tremendous result," defense attorney Thomas Durkin said. "(The plea deal) permits him to get on with his life." Ford declined to discuss details of the case, but said: "I'm sorry I underestimated my taxes."
Ford's presiding judge, Rebecca Pallmeyer, also oversaw the 2006 corruption trial of former Republican Gov. George Ryan. A jury in the same courthouse also convicted Ryan's successor, Democrat Rod Blagojevich, of corruption in 2011.
Prosecutors can dismiss charges before trial for a host of reasons, including because they conclude the evidence isn't strong enough; other times, deals are struck with a defendant to drop counts in exchange for cooperation in other investigations. But there's no indication from prosecutors that either of those reasons apply to Ford's case.
Before his 2012 indictment, Ford was seen as an up-and-coming politician with broad appeal in his district, which includes Chicago's West Side. Even amid his legal troubles, he continued to play key roles in the legislative process, including by helping to pass a law that makes it easier for young people to wipe away minor arrest records.
The crime the former elementary teacher-turned-politician and sometimes-real estate investor admitted to on Monday was misstating the value of a single-home investment property on his taxes.
The now-obsolete felony counts involved vastly more complex allegations.
Prosecutors had accused Ford of making false statements to a bank to get a $500,000 increase on a line of credit. They claimed he told the now-failed ShoreBank he'd use the money to rehabilitate investment properties, when he actually used the funds for expenses such as car loans, casino payments and his 2006 election campaign. Ford denied those allegations.
Early this year, Judge Pallmeyer set an August trial date for Ford on the 17 felony counts. But last month she vacated that date without explanation and then didn't set a new date. Monday was supposed to be a pre-trial status hearing, and the dismissal of the felonies and Ford's change of plea came as a surprise to outside observers.
Prosecutors didn't speak to reporters after Monday's hearing. Durkin declined to say why he thought prosecutors backed away from the more serious charges, though he repeatedly thanked and praised them for doing so.
In a June filing, the defense accused authorities of unfairly singling out Ford for bank fraud charges, arguing that Ford's race and status as a politician played a role.
"Unable to find any political corruption grounds to prosecute (Ford), the prosecutors selected this misguided and improper bank fraud case in an attempt to unseat a popular African-American elected representative," the filing said.
In a response to the court, prosecutors denied race entered into the decision to charge Ford with the felonies. But prosecutors said Ford's political status was an appropriate factor to consider, arguing the law allows for extra scrutiny of elected officials.
On Monday, Durkin declined to criticize prosecutors.
"I'm going to take my wins where I find them and I'm not going to gloat," he said.