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Column

Feds vs. Aaron Schock: It isn’t a fair fight

Prosecutors have a big advantage over defendants

A friend recently asked: What ever happened to Aaron Schock?

The ex-wunderkind congressman from Peoria, Schock, 36, resigned in March 2015 amid media allegations of possible misuse of government and campaign funds. He was indicted by the U.S. attorney in Springfield in November 2016 on 24 counts of alleged wrongdoing.

I talked with lawyers, felons, reporters and former judges who are all knowledgeable about prosecutions by the federal government, including in the Schock case.

I have come away with a strong sense of the awesome power of the federal government in prosecuting its citizens. Putting aside guilt or innocence of those indicted, I conclude it isn’t a fair fight.

If I am correct, are there ways to level the playing field somehow between the resources of the government and defendants?

At age 19, Aaron defeated the president of the Peoria School Board in a write-in campaign. From 2005-08, he served in the Illinois House and then in the U.S. House from 2009 until his resignation, serving districts that include my residence in central Illinois.

In Congress, the handsome Schock rapidly became a high-flying darling of the GOP and was frequently on the magazine covers found at supermarket checkout lines. He traveled the country, campaigning for and raising prodigious sums of money for fellow House candidates.

In March 2015, Politico magazine questioned Schock’s mileage reimbursements and spending from his several campaign funds. He resigned from Congress two weeks later.

Obviously, like Icarus, Schock flew too close to the sun (power and celebrity), too quickly. His bookkeeping of travel and office expenditures was sloppy, at best.

The day after his resignation, the FBI swarmed his home, the beginning of an aggressive investigation into possible criminal actions. Since then, the U.S. attorney in Springfield has convened two grand juries and brought maybe a hundred witnesses to appear before them.

On Nov. 1, 2016, the U.S. attorney indicted Schock on 24 counts of alleged wrongdoing, totaling 80-100 years of possible prison time.

There is an old saying among lawyers who practice in federal courts: A U.S. attorney can get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich. And once indicted, defendants face a nationwide conviction rate of 98 percent in federal courts.

A U.S. attorney has a phalanx of lawyers, plus the investigative resources of the FBI, IRS, Postal Service and more -- and time. When they come after you, it’s like the army coming over the hill, a former prosecutor noted.

Being investigated by the feds is really a nightmare, says one who had gone through the process:

“When they got me in a room full of lawyers and investigators, they laid out a series of crimes like tax evasion, mail fraud, lying to FBI agents (which couldn’t be true because I refused to speak to them without an attorney). And how they will have to investigate my family. Then they added up all the charges, and it came out to 32 years in jail.

“This, before any evidence is presented or a single question asked of me.”

By dragging out investigations, the feds can bankrupt even wealthy defendants, who must keep high-priced lawyers engaged throughout. Out of money, many defendants finally cry, “Uncle,” and plead guilty before trial.

The feds, in their zeal, don’t always get it right. In 2008, the late U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens was convicted of public corruption. Days later, he narrowly lost his re-election bid -- following which the conviction was thrown out for the gross prosecutorial misconduct of intentionally hiding evidence that would have benefited Stevens.

Arrogance can develop in prosecutors’ offices: We are the good guys, so we can do no wrong in our quest to convict the bad guys.

But justice, not convictions, is the obligation and high standard of the U.S. attorney, as Justice Sutherland declared in Berger v. United States (1935).

The Schock case is complicated by the embarrassing admission, following emphatic denials, of possible obstruction of justice. The acting U.S. attorney finally admitted that on 11 occasions, his attorney told the grand jury that Schock “had failed to appear” before the grand jury (a defendant is not required to appear before a grand jury).

This rookie error by a veteran attorney eager to make a name for himself could well have biased the grand jury.

Both the government and Schock have apparently spent millions thus far. Government resources appear unlimited; Schock’s are not.

I suggest the U.S. Department of Justice create an advisory panel of legal and ethics experts to review investigations at the request of defendants. The panel could determine when prosecutors might be using financial muscle and leverage rather than evidence and argument to win their cases.

Whether Schock is guilty or innocent, it isn’t a fair fight.

Note to readers: Jim Nowlan of Toulon can be reached at jnowlan3@gmail.com.

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