Mon., 10:06 pm: Lawmaker pleads to misdemeanor; faced 17 felonies

CHICAGO – An Illinois lawmaker who faced nearly 20 felony bank-fraud charges that could have landed him in prison for decades pleaded guilty today 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.

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 Illinois Legislature.

Outside court later today, 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.