Former state Sen. Terry Link pleads guilty to filing false tax return but could get probation instead of prison

In the latest black eye for the Illinois General Assembly, former Democratic state Sen. Terry Link of North suburban Indian Creek pleaded guilty Wednesday to filing a false tax return as part of a negotiated deal with federal prosecutors.

Link now faces a possible three-year prison term and a $100,000 fine for the felony conviction, but prosecutors are recommending probation because the longtime lawmaker is helping authorities in other matters.

The plea came during a scheduled arraignment in U.S. District Court in Chicago. Link and his attorney, Catharine O'Daniel, appeared before U.S. District Judge Robert M. Dow Jr. via video.

As part of the plea, Link admitted falsifying his income on his federal tax return for 2016, which he submitted in October 2017. Link reported his total income that year was $264,450, even though he knew it substantially exceeded that amount, court documents show.

In an email to the Daily Herald, Link broke his media silence since being charged and insisted the tax crime "had nothing to do with my job as a senator." He didn't elaborate or comment further other than to say he can't talk.

During Wednesday's hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher J. Stetler revealed Link actually earned at least $358,309 that year. Link admitted approximately $73,159 of the $93,859 in unreported income was money from his campaign fund that he spent on personal expenses. The rest of the unreported income wasn't identified in court or in available documents.

Through his 2016 tax return, Link defrauded the IRS of at least $25,913 in revenue and the Illinois Department of Revenue of at least $3,520.

Link's tax returns for the four previous years also were falsified, he admitted in court. For those years, Link shorted the IRS $45,220 and the state $8,008, an 18-page plea agreement indicates.

As part of his plea deal, Link agreed to pay $71,133 in restitution to the IRS and $11,527 to the state.

Under preliminary sentencing guidelines, the 73-year-old Link could've anticipated a prison sentence of 10 months to 16 months. But Stetler is requesting probation as part of a motion that allows leniency based on a defendant's "substantial assistance" in other matters.

Stetler did not provide details about Link's help.

Last year, media reports identified Link as the unnamed senator who cooperated with the FBI and wore a wire to trap then-state Rep. Luis Arroyo of Chicago in a federal bribery case. Arroyo has pleaded not guilty.

Federal documents indicate the person who cooperated falsified tax returns and helped the FBI to get leniency.

Link repeatedly has denied he was the FBI source.

Dow will hand down Link's sentence but didn't set a date. A status hearing is scheduled for March 30, 2021.

Stetler and O'Daniel acknowledged the tax evasion was unrelated to Link's former employment as a senator.

That's important for determining if Link, who collected a $69,464 annual salary when he resigned, will lose his pension. Under state law, pension payments can be stripped from anyone convicted of a felony related to their public service.

Officials with the State Employees' Retirement Systems will seek an opinion from the state attorney general's office, a spokesman for the pension program said. The General Assembly Retirement System board will rule on the matter based on that opinion.

Link resigned his Senate seat late last week with two years left on his term. Democratic leaders in Lake and Cook counties will choose his successor by Oct. 12.

Link had been a senator since 1997, rising to assistant majority leader for a time. He was the longtime chair of the Lake County Democratic Party but quit that post last month after being charged.

Two other Democratic state senators have been on the federal court docket in the last year or so.

Sen. Tom Cullerton of Villa Park was indicted In August 2019 on embezzlement charges stemming from an investigation into a Chicago-area labor union. He pleaded not guilty and still holds office.

Former Sen. Martin Sandoval of Chicago was charged with bribery and tax fraud in January in a case involving a company that installs red-light cameras. He pleaded guilty, resigned from the Senate and agreed to cooperate in an ongoing investigation.

The state House has been targeted by prosecutors, too.

In addition to the Arroyo case, energy utility ComEd has been charged with bribing associates of state House Speaker Michael Madigan in exchange for the speaker's help in pushing through legislation favorable to the utility. Madigan hasn't been charged.

Among the lawmakers reacting to Link's guilty plea Wednesday was Senate President Don Harmon of Oak Park, who called Link's guilty plea "a disappointing reminder of the need to follow through on meaningful reforms as we strive to renew the public's faith in the people they elect."

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