'Heavy-handed' case off-base from the start
As you probably know by now, the U.S. 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 6 months.
What the heck happened here?
The assistant U.S. 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 that 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 U.S. 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 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 whether he'd ever spoken with Ford, whether he knew whether Ford had other offices, and whether 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 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 U.S. attorney who handled Ford's case has since left for private practice, and a new U.S. 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, U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon deserves plaudits for re-examining 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.