Ryan prosecutor reacts to alderman's sentence

February 27, 2009 2:56:21 PM PST
Will a judge's decision to let a former Chicago alderman walk-away from a guilty-plea without any prison time have an effect on government corruption cases?That's the question being debated in local legal circles Friday afternoon. Ed Vrdolyak admitted to scheming to split a real estate finder's fee with his friend and convicted influence peddler Stuart Levine. The judge gave Vrdolyak five years probation when he could have been spent to prison for three-and-a-half years.

Despite decades in the trenches of Chicago politics, Vrdolyak was not convicted on political corruption charges. But a former top federal prosecutor says the light sentence for Vrdolyak may have a chilling impact on current corruption cases.

Patrick Collins prosecuted former Governor George Ryan and brought down dozens of his closest confidants in one on the widest ranging political corruption cases in decades. Now Collins and his former colleagues in the federal courthouse are scratching their heads at the sentence handed down for Ed Vrdolyak.

"God is great! Thank you!" Vrdolyak said.

Judge Milton Shadur found serious flaws in the government's case, at one point, calling it "overkill." Later, Judge Shader admonished prosecutors for portraying the former hard-charging alderman and political king-maker as a wheeling and dealing "insider."

"We do not sentence [defendants] because of what people might think about them" Judge Shadur declared from the bench.

"Obviously, the judge thought a lot about what he did," said Michael Monico, Vrdolyak's attorney.

Vrdolyak's attorney declined to comment Friday and at the sprawling home of the former 10th Ward alderman, no gloating from a woman who answered the door.

Prosecutors rely on the threat of time behind bars to 'encourage' defendants to cooperate. While Vrdolyak pleaded guilty, he's offering the feds no help. Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Collins says in a similar case involving former Ryan advisor and lobbyist Donald Udstuen, eight months of prison, followed by eight months of house arrest was the sentence and Mr. Udstuen played ball.

"He cooperated. He wore a wire on Governor George Ryan and he still got eight months in jail!" Collins said.

Collins says with the clock ticking on an indictment of ousted Governor Rod Blagojevich, he's concerned the Vrdolyak sentence may have a chilling effect on the government's ability to flip witnesses.

"You're going to have people in the back of their minds saying, 'wait a minute, I don't have to help you out. I might get a walk. I mean Fast Eddie Vrdolyak with all his reputation walked out of there,'" said Collins.

Even those who quarrel with the judge's sentence say Shadur has a reputation of being ethical beyond reproach. He 84 years old, was appointed by Jimmy Carter.

While Ed Vrdolyak helped countless lawyers trade their shingles for spots on the bench, the judge who sentenced Vrdolyak was appointed during the Carter administration, and said in court he did not know Vrdolyak before the case came before him. He's a well-respected judge who simply didn't think prosecutors had much of a case.