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The story behind the government’s retreat in the LaShawn Ford case

Monday, Aug 11, 2014

* My weekly syndicated newspaper column

As you probably know by now, the US Attorney’s office in Chicago has agreed to drop all felony charges against Illinois state Rep. LaShawn Ford (D-Chicago) and has charged him instead with a simple misdemeanor.

The original 17 federal counts of bank fraud and submitting false information to a bank each carried potential sentence of 30 years in prison and a $1 million fine - meaning Ford was essentially looking at spending the rest of his natural life behind bars for allegedly falsely obtaining a higher credit line that he wasn’t eligible for and using part of the proceeds for things unrelated to the loan’s stated purpose.

The new charge of delivering a false tax return to the IRS is calculated in the plea agreement to be a term of zero to six months.

What the heck happened here?

The Assistant US Attorney who was in charge of Ford’s case also handled state Rep. Derrick Smith’s investigation. Smith was recently convicted of accepting a cash bribe, but one of the jurors in the trial told the Chicago Tribune after the verdict that some of his colleagues struggled with what they considered to be “sleazy” federal tactics.

Ford’s legal team included famed criminal defense attorney Tom Durkin. The team filed a motion in June which attracted some press coverage over an explosive claim that Ford was being targeted because he was a black legislator. But the motion to dismiss the indictment also revealed for the first time how the case began, which Ford’s attorneys said “belie the notion that this is an even-handed, simple bank fraud case.”

At the time of Ford’s indictment, the US Attorney’s office claimed the investigation fell “under the umbrella of the Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force,” which the feds claimed was investigating “significant financial crimes.”

But an FBI report from May of 2011 shows that a mortgage broker under indictment was asked by the FBI about a loan officer who worked out of an office owned by Ford. The broker was asked if he’d ever spoken with Ford, if he knew whether Ford had other offices and if he knew whether Ford managed his campaign office out of his realty office. The case title on the FBI form was “CSLPO,” which means “Corruption of State and Local Public Officials.” Ford’s lawyers wrote that the federal probe was “undeniably a politically motivated investigation.”

The defense also pointed to a recent FDIC civil suit brought against ShoreBank, where Ford did business. One of the defendants was alleged to be negligent for violating policy on 20 loans. The defendant was also Ford’s managing loan officer. The allegations included misconduct by other ShoreBank loan customers (several of whom are white) which appeared to far exceed Ford’s. And a 2008 internal FDIC report uncovered by Ford’s attorneys described the legislator as being “extremely cooperative” with the bank, and pointed to what Ford’s lawyers say was the his real problem - the downward spiral of the real estate market.

“Unable to find any political corruption grounds to prosecute Defendant, the prosecutors selected this misguided and improper bank fraud case,” Ford’s attorneys wrote. Ford’s attorneys also demanded information from prosecutors about any other federal investigations of ShoreBank customers and any directives from above on how to handle the Ford investigation.

The Assistant US Attorney who handled Ford’s case has since left for private practice and a new US Attorney is now in place. Those two career moves appeared to have put some fresh eyes on this Ford matter, particularly after that motion to dismiss was filed.

Whatever happened, US Attorney Zachary Fardon deserves plaudits for reexamining this prosecution. From the very start, the case appeared to be heavy-handed and overly charged and nowhere near in line with the financial task force’s goal of prosecuting “significant” crimes. It’s not often that a top federal prosecutor will back down, but Fardon obviously did and that’s to his great credit.

The new charges agreed to by Ford state he overvalued a property’s rehab costs by about $23,000 when calculating his capital gains on the property’s sale, which wound up costing the IRS $3,782 in lost taxes.

“I regret this mistake,” Ford wrote to his colleagues last week, and concluded by saying he hoped the ordeal “will make me a better person and a more effective Member of the Illinois General Assembly.”

Ford obviously has his flaws, but I hope he can now move forward with his life.

* Related…

* Fardon explains LaShawn Ford plea deal: “It’s not our job to win or lose,” Fardon said. “It’s our job to do the right thing. My office is full of altruistic public servants who work hard every day to make hard judgments about what is the right thing given the particular facts and circumstances in front of them. That’s what we do. And so, in that case as in all, we did what we thought was right.”

* LaShawn Ford honored at West Side church

* Rep. LaShawn Ford Says He Still Has Supporters, Hasn’t Lost ‘Respect’

* Editorial: Ford’s sweet victory: The Journal has been stout in its defense of LaShawn Ford, not because we had any insights into his tax returns but because we have come to know him in our reporting of his efforts as Austin and Oak Park’s state rep over the past eight years and as a real estate developer before that. We could ask harsh questions of the U.S. Attorney’s Office because these charges have always seemed a gigantic overreach to us.

- Posted by Rich Miller        


15 Comments
  1. - Exodus - Monday, Aug 11, 14 @ 9:25 am:

    JMO, but reads like a shot at Fardon’s predecessor as USA for the Northern District.


  2. - Arizona Bob - Monday, Aug 11, 14 @ 9:44 am:

    This is pretty unusual for the US Attorney’s office. They have an extremely high success rate because of almost unlimited investigative resources and they usually don’t move forward without metaphysical certainty of guilt.

    As usual, the negligent prosecutors move on and prosper without paying a price for their misdeeds.

    The damage has been done to Rep Ford. His legal bills must be well into the six figures. If there was justice, he’d be reimbursed for a substantial part of his defense…at the expense of the miscreant prosecutor.

    The US Attorney’s office used to be the “clean jeans” of the justice system, while the state’s attorney in Cook often had the dirty hands.

    This would be a good time for the new
    US attorney to publically comment on what happened, and establish his policy to avoid frivilous prosecution.

    Anyone think that will happen?


  3. - Coffee Cup - Monday, Aug 11, 14 @ 9:52 am:

    It probably was the right call. The U.S. Attorney’s office has to go wherever the facts of a case lead them so I certainly don’t fault them for initially pursuing the lead on LaShawn Ford. I would imagine that the inference and the accusation of racial overtones in this case might also have prompted the FBI and the Justice Department to want to “scale down” this potential hot potato.
    Here is a thought to mull over, though: When a case is dropped (although this one has not been dropped), wouldn’t it be the “morally” and “ethically” right decision for the Justice Department to reimburse the accused for any and all legal costs that they incurred in defending themselves against false charges brought against them by a federal or state investigation? I have watched these falsely accused people have to incur huge personal legal bills to defend themselves by using expensive attorneys (like Tom Durkin)and it just doesn’t seem fair to me. But, as my Uncle Bill used to say to me, “Who says life has to be fair?”


  4. - Amalia - Monday, Aug 11, 14 @ 10:02 am:

    and that former AUSA is probably out there defending people right now. who is s/he?


  5. - Nearly Normal - Monday, Aug 11, 14 @ 10:04 am:

    And how many of the real perps in the economic meltdown have been prosecuted and put in jail?

    Not many.


  6. - Todd - Monday, Aug 11, 14 @ 10:15 am:

    I got to see this kind of thing from a very short distance. The feds have way to much power and very little oversight. They get more about the conviction and justifying the expenditures of all these federal resources, expecially if they do a big raid and such.

    they hate to walk away with nothing.


  7. - walker - Monday, Aug 11, 14 @ 10:32 am:

    Flimsier even than I suspected. Nothing ever there on the banking allegations.


  8. - Taxandspendfolly - Monday, Aug 11, 14 @ 11:07 am:

    This is a real dig at former USA Fitzgerald, whom the media seems to idolize. In fact those who dealt with the office under Fitzgerald know he was often unreasonable and had zero empathy or understanding of people. The office bluffed a lot under Fitz, and good defense lawyers would successfully call those bluffs. Tom Durkin was an AUSA back in the days of the giants, and he knew Fitz was bluffing. Fitz’ bad here.


  9. - West Sider - Monday, Aug 11, 14 @ 11:08 am:

    I’m reminded of Reagan’s Secretary of Labor, Ray Donovan who, after aquital of corruption charges, was famously quoted as asking, “Which office do I go to to get my reputation back?”


  10. - Taxandspendfolly - Monday, Aug 11, 14 @ 11:30 am:

    And watch Fitz lose about half of his Blagojevich counts on appeal soon. That case was overcharged as well.


  11. - wordslinger - Monday, Aug 11, 14 @ 11:48 am:

    –The Assistant US Attorney who handled Ford’s case has since left for private practice …–

    That’s what it was all about. Making a splash, putting some skins on the wall and cashing out.

    The lengths they went to entrap Smith and go after Ford were disgusting abuses of power. Had nothing to do with justice, just resume-building.


  12. - Illinois taxpayer - Monday, Aug 11, 14 @ 12:26 pm:

    Are the Feds going to pay his legal bills too? God knows how many years he’ll have to work to pay those off because of an all too common abuse of Federal prosecutorial power.


  13. - Mokenavince - Monday, Aug 11, 14 @ 12:37 pm:

    Ford looked like easy pickin’s for the former prosecutor . After all the G has all the money in the world for a beat down. Fardon did the right thing , and it’s about time.
    We actually have quite a few honest politicians in this State.


  14. - Arizona Bob - Monday, Aug 11, 14 @ 2:47 pm:

    @Mokenavince

    =We actually have quite a few honest politicians in this State.=

    Name about a dozen, and let us take our shots, Vince.


  15. - gg - Monday, Aug 11, 14 @ 5:57 pm:

    Ford should have walked clean.

    Feds are unfair bullies.


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