Convicted Officials: Minorities Go to Trial Faster; Whites Serve More Time

On Jan. 20, with just hours left in his presidency, Bill Clinton tapped his constitutional powers to issue a flurry of clemencies to 177 public officials and private citizens. The next day former U.S. Rep. Mel Reynolds walked out of federal prison and into a halfway house, his 78-month sentence commuted by Clinton to the 42 months he had already served.

Though elated, many Reynolds supporters argued that his sentence was one of the harshest handed down to a Chicago elected official in recent years. They compared the African American’s prison term to those of white elected officials, such as U.S. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, sentenced to 17 months on mail fraud charges, and former Alderman Lawrence Bloom (5th), who served six months after pleading guilty to a tax violation. Reynolds, Rostenkowski and Bloom were among the 18 Chicago elected officials convicted of federal crimes that were committed since current sentencing guidelines went into effect in November 1987.

Why Reynolds ended up with a longer sentence than almost any other official is not widely understood.

Many African American and Latino political experts have suggested that the criminal justice system deals more harshly with minority officials than their white counterparts. “Race cannot be factored out,” said Timuel D. Black, professor emeritus of social sciences for the City Colleges of Chicago. Black said he was “struck by the inequities” between Reynolds and Rostenkowski. “Rostenkowski had considerably more clout, clout Mel Reynolds couldn’t possibly have attained as a black man,” Black said.

The 1987 guidelines severely limited the discretion that federal judges once exercised in sentencing. Under the guidelines, judges must base federal prison terms on a number of variables, including the nature of the offense and the offender’s history. But judges can still exercise some discretion over sentencing by increasing or decreasing a defendant’s punishment, depending on aggravating or mitigating factors associated with the crime.

An analysis by The Chicago Reporter showed that Reynolds received the shortest sentence possible under the guidelines, but only after a judge chose to lengthen the sentence based on aggravating factors. And a look at all 18 Chicago elected officials convicted since 1987 found that on average, the eight white officials who were sentenced received more time in prison than the nine non-white officials. Cook County Treasurer Edward Rosewell was convicted of mail fraud, but was never sentenced because of illness.

The average sentence of white officials was 47 months; black and Latino officials received an average of 34 months. Excluding the 15-year, nine-month sentence of former Cook County Circuit Court Judge Thomas Maloney, which was more than twice as long as the next longest sentence, white officials averaged 29 months in prison. Maloney is the only judge in Illinois history ever convicted of taking a bribe to fix a murder trial.

However, the Reporter analysis also showed that minority officials went to trial much more quickly than whites, giving them less time to prepare a defense.

The average time between indictment and trial was 220 days for black officials and 473 days for whites. Reynolds went to trial in 134 days. Former City Treasurer Miriam Santos, whose conviction was later overturned by a federal appeals court, went to trial in 70 days, more quickly than any of the other officials. Santos was the only Latino of the 18 to go to trial.

“The amount of time you have to prepare for a trial is critical,” said Chris Gair, an attorney with Freeman, Freeman & Salzman P.C., who represented Santos at trial.

U.S. Attorney Scott Lassar seemed surprised by the Reporter’s findings. Referring to the racial disparity in time to trial, Lassar said, “I don’t know why that would be.” He added that prosecutors don’t “jump up and down for an early trial date” if the defendant is black.

The Reporter studied three cases in depth–”Reynolds, Santos and Bloom–”to illustrate the complex factors that determine what happens to public officials indicted for federal crimes.

Prosecutors Power

The sentencing guidelines, created by the United States Sentencing Commission, took effect on Nov. 1, 1987, and apply to all federal offenses committed on and beyond that date. The commission, based in Washington, D.C., is an independent agency within the federal judiciary.

The guidelines take into account both the offense and the defendant’s previous criminal history. Judges must look at a guideline chart, pinpoint where the offense level and the defendant’s criminal history intersect, and then impose a sentence within that range.

The guidelines were intended to make sentencing more equitable. “Many minority defendants were receiving tougher sentences,” said U.S. District Judge Rubén Castillo, vice-chairman of the United States Sentencing Commission since November 1999.

However, many in the legal community complain that the current system is “sentencing by numbers.” The guidelines don’t take the “human elements” into account, said U.S. Circuit Judge Ilana D. Rovner. Asked whether the new law eliminated judicial discretion, she said, “Totally–”100 percent. Not even 99 percent.” Rovner has been a federal appeals judge since 1992 and is a former U.S. district judge.

So-called “truth in sentencing” is also achieved because defendants must serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. In addition, the commission abolished parole.

According to Castillo, limited judicial discretion is “the common complaint” about the sentencing guidelines. “There’s a certain amount of truth to that,” he said, but “it’s been overplayed.”

Castillo acknowledged that the guidelines strengthen the power of prosecutors. “They know how to use the guidelines,” and as a result, guilty plea rates have risen, along with the number of cooperating witnesses, he said. According to the commission, the percentage of guilty pleas rose from 76.4 percent of all federal indictments in the Northern District of Illinois in 1989 to 87.2 percent in 1999. It peaked at 92.1 percent in 1997.

Some legal observers say prosecutors have too much power. The guidelines “take sentencing away from judges and give it to the prosecutors,” said David Stetler, an attorney with Stetler & Duffy Ltd. and an assistant U.S. attorney from 1979 until 1988. “The prosecutor can do a lot in terms of what the sentence is going to be by virtue of what they charge people with,” he added.

However, Lassar denied the allegation that his office uses charges to “have a hammer over defendants–¦then drop that count if they cooperate.”

Some in the legal community argue that prosecutors also can use the guidelines to obtain lower sentences. “Sentences are pretty much set in stone,” said Edward M. Genson, a veteran criminal defense attorney with the firm Genson & Gillespie. “The only difference is when the government manipulates the guidelines to get a lower sentence.”

For example, prosecutors recommended lowering Bloom’s offense level because he accepted responsibility for his actions, court records show.

Tarnished Image

Early in Reynolds’ trial, U.S. District Judge Charles R. Norgle Sr. said that he would receive a fair trial, Reynolds recalled. “Nothing could have been further from the truth,” Reynolds said in an interview with the Reporter, the first since his release from prison.

Reynolds was indicted on 16 counts of bank and wire fraud, and lying to the Federal Election Commission in 1996, fresh from his 1995 sexual misconduct conviction in state court. The indictment alleged that he misrepresented his financial condition to obtain loans from several local banks and filed false campaign disclosures. A jury found him guilty on 15 of the 16 counts.

According to Chicago-Kent College of Law professor Richard Kling, who argued Reynolds’ case on appeal, Reynolds was forced to go to trial before he was prepared, and did not get a fair trial. His attorneys, Bill Hooks and Robert A. Loeb, asked for a continuance, but Norgle denied the request. Reynolds went to trial 134 days after his indictment; the average for the 14 officials who went to trial was 362 days.

On July 15, 1997, Norgle sentenced Reynolds to 78 months in prison plus five years of supervised release. Norgle also ordered him to pay a $750 fine and $20,000 in restitution.

Norgle increased Reynolds’ offense level by at least six points, raising his sentencing range to 78 to 97 months.

Some, including Kling, said Reynolds’ previous conviction affected not only his sentence but also the timbre of the trial itself. Reynolds’ sexual liaison with Beverly Heard, an underage campaign worker, and his subsequent attempt to cover it up, tarnished his image, Kling said.

In appealing his client’s conviction, Kling argued that Norgle made errors and was biased against Reynolds. For instance, when controversial Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan came to the courtroom to watch the trial, a juror sent Norgle a note saying that the Muslim leader’s presence was “quite possibly detrimental to these proceedings.” Kling’s appeal argued that Reynolds could have been affected by the juror’s bias against Farrakhan and that Norgle should have questioned the juror about the note.

Kling also argued that at one point Norgle took over the questioning of Reynolds, and “crossed the line of being an impartial advocate.” Still, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Reynolds’ conviction on Aug. 27, 1999.

While Kling believes Reynolds was treated unfairly, he doesn’t think it was because of his race. “[Norgle is] known more or less as a prosecution judge,” Kling said.

Norgle declined to comment for this article.

Reynolds, on the other hand, thinks race was a factor in his sentencing. “I’m not making any excuses for Mel Reynolds as far as what I did and what I didn’t do and mistakes that I made,” he said. “I made mistakes and I regret those mistakes tremendously. Once a person makes a mistake, he does not lose his rights as a United States citizen to be treated fairly, and race and poverty should not come in to any punishment,” Reynolds added. “I think in my case it did.”

Rising Star

Like Reynolds, Santos chose to fight a federal indictment, went to trial and lost. But her conviction was overturned on appeal. The first Latina elected to a citywide office in Chicago, Santos worked herself up from working class roots. A rising star in the Democratic Party, she was seen by many in her community as their best hope to be Chicago’s first Puerto Rican mayor.

On Jan. 27, 1999, less than four weeks before her election to a third full term as Chicago city treasurer, Santos was indicted on five counts of mail fraud, two counts of wire fraud and five counts of attempted extortion. Prosecutors alleged that Santos used high-pressure tactics in telephone calls to firms that did business with her office in order to get them to make political contributions to the Democratic Party of Illinois.

A jury found her guilty on six of 12 counts of attempted extortion and mail fraud on May 3, 1999. Santos contends she didn’t get a fair trial and that “we were not able to put on a defense.”

Santos went to trial even more quickly than Reynolds, 70 days after her indictment. On Feb. 10, 1999, David Stetler, who represented Santos, asked for a continuance so he could represent her.

Stetler was beginning a three-to-four month trial in another case. Norgle, who presided over Reynolds’ case, denied the request. Stetler still questions the timing of Santos’ indictment. “I defy anybody to tell me, anywhere, where a prosecutor brought allegations against a public official who was within a month of an election. It doesn’t happen; prosecutors avoid that,” he said. As a former assistant U.S. attorney, Stetler prosecuted several public corruption cases.

“You look at cases over in the U.S. attorney’s office, [and] they’re brought three, four, five, sometimes eight years after the events in question,” Stetler said. “I thought it was very disturbing, to say the least, that the U.S. attorney’s office would charge somebody on the veritable eve of an election,” he said.

“That’s unusual behavior for the U.S. attorney’s office,” agreed former assistant U.S. attorney Scott F. Turow, who served in the office from 1978 until 1986 and prosecuted cases in the Operation Greylord investigation of judicial corruption.

Chris Gair, also a former federal prosecutor, ended up defending Santos at trial. Gair charged that prosecutor Jerry Krulewitch was “trying to win by any means necessary.” Krulewitch declined to comment, but Lassar said the case “was prosecuted professionally like any other.” He added, “My policy is to indict a case when it’s ready to be indicted and ignore elections.”

Santos was sentenced to nearly the maximum jail term under the federal sentencing guidelines. On July 27, 1999, Norgle sentenced her to 40 months’ incarceration from a possible range of 33 to 41 months. Norgle had also enhanced her offense level because he found that she had abused the public trust and perjured herself during her testimony.

Santos’ case raised eyebrows in Chicago’s legal community. In fact, in September 1999, three former U.S. attorneys–”Thomas P. Sullivan, Dan K. Webb and Anton R. Valukas–”along with Turow and several former federal judges and law professors, signed a “friend of the court” brief on Santos’ behalf, arguing that her Sixth Amendment right to counsel had been violated.

Then on Jan. 19, 2000, a three-judge panel of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found Norgle had committed a “veritable avalanche of errors” and overturned Santos’ conviction. She had spent nearly four months in prison.

“Few federal trials take place so soon,” wrote Chief Judge Richard A. Posner in the 7th Circuit’s opinion, adding that Norgle’s reasons for denying the continuance “do not hold water.” Posner also wrote that Norgle further erred because he “allowed contested testimony adverse to the defendant to be presented while precluding the defendant from offering contrary evidence.”

After the appeals court reversed her conviction, Santos was allowed to return to her city treasurer’s post. But on Oct. 27, she pleaded guilty to one count of mail fraud, for doing political work on city time, to avoid a retrial. On Nov. 21, U.S. District Judge George Lindberg sentenced her to three months and 17 days, considered time served, and ordered her to pay $21,100 in fines and restitution by the next day.

At the sentencing, Santos defended her conduct as treasurer, saying she tried to separate her political activities from the business of the treasurer’s office. “I tried to keep the line. As all politicians know, lines are crossed,” Santos said. She charged that a new “Santos standard” was established with her prosecution.

At a press conference after the sentencing, First Assistant U.S. Attorney Gary Shapiro, chief of the office’s criminal division, dismissed Santos’ claim of widespread government corruption, calling it “an overly cynical view of American politics.” Asked about whether there is a “Santos standard,” Shapiro said, “if that’s true, it’s a good thing … the same standard applies to everyone. We didn’t target Miriam Santos until people came to us with these allegations.”

“If that’s going to be the standard,” Stetler countered, “you better think twice before you call anybody at their city office to ask them a political question because you just may be an aider and abetter.”

Santos also alleged selective prosecution of minority elected officials. “We’re treated differently in this system; it’s unreasonable to think that we’re not,” she said.

Gair doesn’t think racism was a factor in his client’s prosecution. Rather, “She [Santos] got caught because of a bunch of finks in her office who couldn’t stand her and went to the FBI,” Gair said.

But Juan Andrade, president of the U.S. Hispanic Leadership Institute, an advocacy group, agreed with Santos that minority officials are targeted. “A Latino doesn’t have the resources or the personnel to do their deal-making. They [whites] have the resources, and they’re much more sophisticated,” he said.

Santos said her guilty plea and subsequent mail fraud conviction marked the “end of her life as a public figure.” She may lose her law license as a result of her felony conviction; a decision is pending from the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission of the Illinois Supreme Court. In the meantime, Santos is living in Wrigleyville on Chicago’s North Side and working as a business consultant.

Shocked Supporters

Bloom was one of three elected officials who pleaded guilty rather than go to trial on charges stemming from Operation Silver Shovel. He was indicted on 14 counts, including fraud, extortion and false statements. Prosecutors dropped 13 of those counts in exchange for his pleading guilty to filing a false corporate tax return in connection with his business, Shoreline Realty Co., based in Hyde Park on the South Side.

Eight Chicago elected officials were indicted in connection with Silver Shovel: two Latinos, five blacks and one white. Only 12th Ward Alderman Ray Frí­as, a Mexican American, beat the charges.

When Bloom pleaded guilty on Dec. 4, 1998, it came as a shock to many of his longtime supporters. Members of the Independent Voters of Illinois/Independent Precinct Organization, who endorsed Bloom four times, “were probably hurt quite a bit,” said Kevin Lamm, former IVI-IPO state chair. Bloom was someone who “carried the water on what we felt were good government issues,” Lamm noted.

However, in his plea agreement, Bloom admitted that “in exchange for money,” he used his position and influence as 5th Ward alderman to help waste dumping contractor John Christopher obtain city services for his private business. Bloom also admitted accepting $4,000 from Christopher for these “official acts” and taking an illegal $10,000 campaign contribution. Christopher agreed to work undercover in the Silver Shovel investigation in exchange for leniency in a prior criminal case, court records show. Nevertheless, Bloom credited his attorney, Dan Reidy, of Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue, with making a big difference in the outcome of his case. Reidy, an assistant U.S. attorney from 1975 to 1987, is very familiar with the sentencing guidelines, and “knew how the U.S. attorney’s office worked because he worked there,” Bloom said. “Without it, you don’t really stand a chance.”

According to Lassar, Bloom’s plea agreement was “a compromise. It was a good agreement for the government; we got his admissions that he did corrupt activities beyond what he pled to,” Lassar said. He denied that Bloom received any preferential treatment based on race or ties to prosecutors. “I don’t think you’re going to get a sweetheart deal if your lawyer’s a former prosecutor,” Lassar added. Under the sentencing guidelines, Bloom’s conviction required a range of 0 to 6 months in prison; Bloom was sentenced to the maximum. But unlike Reynolds and Santos, Bloom’s sentence was not increased for abusing the public trust, court records show. Bloom told The Chicago Reporter that, in general, the Silver Shovel investigation was “entrapment.” He also revealed that he had known Christopher since the 1970s.

“I met John Christopher about 20 years earlier –¦ that’s why I even talked to him. I worked for a small firm and Christopher was a client,” Bloom said in his only in-depth interview about his case. He recalled that during the late fall of 1993 or 1994 he was lunching at a private club in downtown Chicago when Christopher approached him. Bloom remembers Christopher said, ” –˜My life’s turned around, can I come and see you?’ I handed myself to him on a silver platter,” he said.

What he did for Christopher was what he would have done for anyone, Bloom said. Federal agents “tried to set up something that was normally done by the alderman and have a payment in some close time proximity–” a payment that might not otherwise have been illegal, but by virtue of the way they staged it, became illegal. That to me is not law enforcement,” he added.

Bloom disputes the argument that he got special treatment because he is white. In fact, “They [prosecutors] must have been relieved and probably jumped on [my case] because I think it gave them a certain element of cover against charges that their investigation was racially motivated,” he said.

Prosecutors target people who don’t have intermediaries to insulate them from constituents, Bloom said. “They go for the easy ones,” he said. He argued that many of those caught aren’t insulated or sophisticated.

Bloom served five months at the Federal Prison Camp at Oxford, Wis. As a result of his conviction Bloom gave up his law license; he can reapply for it in July 2002. In the meantime, he is working as a real estate developer, living in Hyde Park and, he said, “leading a much calmer life.”

And Bloom stands by his record. “I still maintain that I was quite possibly among the most honest and uncorrupt of the aldermen who have ever served in the City Council,” he said.

Contributing: Pamela A. Lewis. Tanisha N. Blakely, R. Asli Hacioglu, Tim Hollander, Micah Holmquist, Jill Leahy, Kimiyo Naka, Ellyn M. Ong, and Cheryl Wierda helped research this article.

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