Jim Dey | Fresh sets of eyes looking over Schock's corruption case

Jim Dey | Fresh sets of eyes looking over Schock's corruption case

Federal prosecutors will bring a fresh set of eyes to their re-examination of the corruption indictment against former Republican U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock of Peoria.

That was the most significant disclosure Friday morning during a roughly 10-minute hearing at the U.S. Courthouse in Urbana.

A new judge, Matthew Kennelly, who presides in the Northern District of Illinois (Chicago), heard a new prosecutor ask for additional time to review matters. That came on the heels of Thursday's revelation that higher-ups at the U.S. Justice Department in Washington, D.C., removed Central District prosecutors from the case for undisclosed reasons.

Brian Hayes, chief of the criminal division of the U.S. Attorney's office in Chicago, told Kennelly that he will put together a new prosecution team to "get to know (the case) and evaluate it" before deciding how to proceed.

Asked what specifically he has in mind, Hayes told The News-Gazette that he was speaking in a "very broad" manner.

"We don't know anything about the case," Hayes said.

He said his office was just informed that local prosecutors were ousted and that it had been re-assigned to the Chicago office. Hayes said his role as matters move forward is undetermined.

"I came down just to represent the office today," he said.

The turnover of the prosecution team adds to the impression that the judicial system in the Central District is in disarray.

U.S. Judge Colin Bruce, who was presiding over the Schock case, recently was stripped of his criminal case docket.

The decision, ordered by Peoria-based U.S. Judge James Shadid, chief judge of the Central District, came after emails Bruce wrote to a former paralegal in the prosecutors' office came to light.

The emails, which concerned an international kidnapping case before Bruce, were deemed an improper ex parte communication with the prosecutors' office. Bruce defended his comments — he lampooned the cross-examination skills of an inexperienced prosecutor — as "innocuous." But Shadid thought otherwise.

Bruce continues to hear civil cases. It's unclear when he will be allowed to again hear criminal cases.

President Donald Trump recently nominated Sangamon County State's Attorney John Milhiser to be the next U.S. Attorney for the Central District. Milhiser is backed by Democratic U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, so the U.S. Senate confirmation process should move relatively fast.

In the absence of a permanent chief for the past two years, the federal prosecutors' office has been led by two acting U.S. Attorneys, including Patrick Hansen, a Springfield-based prosecutor. Before he was removed from the Schock prosecution, Hansen also lost his title as "acting" U.S. Attorney.

He sat quietly at the courtroom counsel table as his successor, Hayes, addressed the court.

Prior to Hansen's removal this week, another prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim Bass, was taken off the case by his superiors.

Bass' removal came after it was revealed that he made a false representation to Bruce that concerned improper statements he and Hansen both made before grand juries investigating the Schock case.

Schock, a 37-year-old former member of the U.S. House, was indicted in November 2016 on a variety of charges related to his handling of government and campaign fund reimbursements.

Schock was present for Friday's brief hearing, having flown in from Los Angeles. He expressed mild satisfaction over the government's announcement that it will review the case. But he said he doesn't want to get his hopes up that the case will be dismissed.

"Time will tell," he said.

The government alleged theft of government and campaign funds, including seeking reimbursements for miles he never drove.

A former state legislator before being elected to the U.S. House, Schock has adamantly denied any improprieties. He has asserted that he and members of his office staff may have made mistakes in handling financial matters, but that he had no intention of obtaining payments he was not legally entitled to receive.

In addition to denying any improprieties, Schock and his legal team have complained bitterly about prosecutors' investigative tactics, repeatedly alleging misconduct both inside and outside the grand jury.

During Friday's hearing, Kennelly said he would try to stick with the Jan. 28 trial date Bruce previously set. But he said every date that has been set carries "a little bit of an asterisk" because of the personnel changes.

After consulting with lawyers from both sides, Kennelly gave them 60 days — an Oct. 26 deadline — to get their motions and responses on file. He also scheduled an Oct. 5 status hearing in Chicago to hear "anything either side wants to talk about."

Kennelly's assignment has raised questions about where a trial will be held.

It must be held somewhere in the Central District. It came to Urbana because Bruce presides in Urbana, and it remains in Urbana absent any direction otherwise by Kennelly.

Kennelly, 61, was soft-spoken and polite in his exchanges with lawyers. Appointed to the bench by President Bill Clinton in 1999, he was born in Marion and graduated from Notre Dame and Harvard Law School.

Before being appointed to the bench, he was in private practice. Kennelly served as a law clerk from 1982 to 1984 for U.S. Judge Prentice Marshall, a member of the University of Illinois law faculty before being appointed a federal judge in Chicago.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or by phone at 217-3513-5369.