State Rep. LaShawn Ford (D-8th) pleaded guilty Monday morning in federal court to a misdemeanor charge of misreporting his federal taxes in 2007, which resulted in him underpaying those taxes by $3,782. 

But that plea was a far cry from the 17 felony bank fraud charges that he had faced until Monday. In a stunning turn, federal prosecutors dropped all of those 17 charges against Ford, who represents all of North Riverside and a portion of northern Brookfield.

After Monday’s court appearance, Ford’s attorney, Thomas Durkin praised Ford for having “the courage of his convictions” and his willingness to go to trial on the charges. 

Ford had faced up to 30 years in prison on each of the 17 counts of the bank fraud brought by the U.S. Attorney’s office in November 2012.

Durkin also praised recently appointed U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon for his willingness to come to a resolution of the charges against Ford.

Ford will be sentenced Nov. 7 by Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer, who told Ford at the court hearing that federal sentencing guidelines call for a sentence of up to one year in prison. Fines could also reach $100,000. 

And while Pallmeyer is not bound by the plea agreement negotiated by the U.S. Attorney and Ford, that document suggests that Ford is unlikely to be sentenced to prison. Owing to the small amount of unpaid taxes and Ford’s otherwise clear criminal history, federal prosecutors stated in the agreement that after sentence is passed they will dismiss the indictment.

The outcome also allows Ford to continue in the state legislature as well as maintain his real estate and insurance licenses. Ford was first elected to the state legislature in 2007.

The basis for the misdemeanor charge traces to Ford’s work rehabbing and reselling homes on Chicago’s West Side as part of his real estate business. The specific charge involves the rehab of a single-family home at 5700 W. Erie St. in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago. 

Prosecutors alleged that on his 2007 income tax return Ford overstated the amount of money he spent to rehab the home. The tax return said Ford had invested $74,226 to rehab the house while the prosecutors set the actual figure at $51,160. That difference, prosecutors said, resulted in an underpayment of $3,782 in federal income tax.

In an interview last week with the Landmark’s sister paper, Wednesday Journal, Ford acknowledged not paying close enough attention to the bookkeeping for his many rehab projects. But he said he had faith in his accountant and now has learned that the ultimate responsibility is with the person signing his name to any documents.

Ford, 42, was indicted by the U.S. Attorney in November 2012. The 17 charges — eight for bank fraud and nine for submitting false information to the now defunct Shore Bank — all stemmed from real estate rehab work that Ford had done on his native West Side. 

The feds alleged that Ford had submitted false information to the bank in order to extend and increase a line of credit at the bank. Other charges alleged that Ford had co-mingled his personal expenses with the business line of credit.

From the first day of the indictment, Ford vehemently declared he was innocent of all charges and promised to defend himself aggressively.

Dan Haley contributed to this report

Ford looks back and ahead

On Monday afternoon, hours after the U.S. Attorney remarkably pulled back 17 felony counts of bank fraud and replaced it with a single misdemeanor count of underpaying his income taxes by $3,782 in 2007, state Rep. LaShawn Ford (D-8th) expressed gratitude, relief and contrition.

And he talked about the past 28 months — eight months under heavy scrutiny by the FBI, 20 months under indictment and facing a trial that could have sent him to prison for years, cost him his position in the state legislature and made him a convicted felon.

Ford talked about hard days as the enormity of the charges hit him and the challenge of mounting a defense against the powerful federal legal apparatus seemed daunting even as he was convinced of his innocence.

He recalled lying next to his mother who was fighting cancer "and my mom crying with me and telling me everything was going to be OK." His mother is now in full remission, he said.

He talked about the charges and the fight "diminishing my strength as a father."

He recalled his first lawyer telling him he should take a plea deal and serve his time.

"It is important that people stand up for themselves. And that they admit when they're wrong," he said. 

While the feds' action to withdraw the bank fraud charges is nearly unprecedented, Ford was asked why when presented with this plea agreement late last week he pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor in the end.

"They proved to me that I underpaid my taxes. They found the proof and showed it to me. I should be penalized. I can't argue with that. I'm guilty of not paying my fair share of taxes." he said. 

Talking to reporters after the plea agreement was signed Monday, Ford was generous in his praise of his veteran attorney Thomas Durkin. 

"He looked at me as a man and he really listened to me," said Ford. 

Later in the day Ford expanded on the topic and explained how it related to his race. 

"The majority of criminal courts deal with African-American men. That's not the race card. It just is. And when you select an attorney they have to respect you. They have to get to know you," Ford said. "[Durkin] took the time to get to know me. We sat and talked even before he had read the case. 

"He believed in me. For me as an African American, but for anyone, that is important."

Now Ford is again looking forward. He is on the November election ballot and is running unopposed.

"I'm grateful to people in the 8th District for waiting for justice to be discerned, for being willing to allow the legal process to take place. That's what it is all about," said Ford. "I can be a better public servant because of this. I'm ready to move ahead if the people will have me. This has given me more of an allegiance to my constituents. This has strengthened my ties to the people of the 8th District."

—Dan Haley