Jim Dey | First judge, now prosecutors out of Schock case

Jim Dey | First judge, now prosecutors out of Schock case

The increasingly odd corruption case filed against former U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock took another bizarre turn Thursday when local prosecutors were removed from the case by their superiors in Washington, D.C.

The news came in the form of a motion filed by Springfield-based federal prosecutors who asked for a delay in a status hearing scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Friday at the U.S. Courthouse in Urbana. Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Hansen sought the delay because "the Department of Justice (in Washington, D.C.) is in the process of reassigning the prosecution of this matter to a different prosecution team outside the Central District of Illinois."

The dismissal of the Central District prosecution team comes just a couple weeks after the judge presiding over the case — U.S. Judge Colin Bruce — was removed by Chief Judge James Shadid for engaging in impermissible ex parte email communications with a paralegal with whom he worked while he was an assistant U.S. Attorney.

Those communications — judicial musings about mistakes the prosecution was making in questioning a trial witness — involved the unrelated case of an Urbana woman, Sarah Nixon, charged with international kidnapping.

Nonetheless, the chief judge removed Bruce from all of his criminal cases and reassigned the Schock case to Chicago-based U.S. Judge Matthew Kennelly.

Surprisingly, Kennelly rejected the government's request for a delay in today's hearing, ordering everyone to show up, including the now-defrocked prosecution team. Schock, who is involved in California real-estate development, is flying in from Los Angeles to attend.

"The government's motion ... is denied. The request to stay the deadline for filing motions and responses is taken under advisement and will be addressed at the status conference" today, Judge Kennelly said in a written order.

It is unclear what the decision by the Justice Department means for the case. However, Schock's defense team has complained bitterly about what they consider inappropriate conduct by local prosecutors, whose dismissal is a sure sign that higher-ups in Washington, D.C., have had it with their missteps.

In addition to previous motions alleging misconduct, the defense recently filed a new motion alleging additional prosecutorial misconduct before the grand jury.

One previous controversy, for which Bruce admonished prosecutors Hansen and Tim Bass, also involved grand jury misbehavior. That involved joint denials by Hansen and Bass of charges that they made improper statements to the grand jury about Schock's failure to appear before the grand jury.

They said such conduct never occurred. However, a review of grand jury transcripts revealed the two made references to Schock's nonappearance on 11 occasions.

Targets of a grand jury inquiry have an absolute legal right not to testify — Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination — and the government is barred from mentioning it to grand jurors.

It's unclear what the Justice Department's decision portends. But Schock's lawyers are hoping that a new prosecution team will review the charges against their client and reconsider the case.

"This case should have been over before it began; nonetheless, we welcome the opportunity new prosecutors will now have to evaluate the matter," said George Terwilliger, Schock's lead lawyer and a former No. 2 man in the Justice Department in the Bush II administration.

This is the second time Washington, D.C.-based Justice Department officials have big-footed their way into the case.

A D.C. prosecutor shunted local prosecutors aside earlier this year in a Schock appeal to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago. Bruce dismissed two of the 20-plus charges against Schock, who sought dismissal of the entire indictment. The appeals court affirmed Bruce's decision, saying it would be happy to review the propriety of the indictment if Schock is convicted and appeals.

The government has charged Schock with a variety of offenses, including mail fraud and income tax evasion, that allege he was improperly reimbursed by the government and his campaign funds. Among the charges are that he improperly sought reimbursement for mileage expenses.

Schock, a onetime boy wonder of Illinois politics from Peoria, has adamantly denied the charges. He has acknowledged making administrative errors but denied allegations he intentionally sought to defraud anyone.

Now 37, he was indicted shortly after the November 2016 election.

 

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or by phone at 217-351-5369.

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