Philadelphia News & Search
HARRISBURG – In an extraordinary decision, a federal judge on Monday dismissed the corruption case against a wealthy Chester County businessman, saying the government had failed to prove he attempted to bribe former state Treasurer Rob McCord.
U.S. District John E. Jones III delivered the decision from the bench, after hearing two weeks of government testimony in the case of Richard Ireland.
“This is a tough call, but it is a call that has to be made,” the judge told a shocked courtroom.
The ruling was a striking blow to federal authorites who have led a long-running pay-to-play investigation into lobbying and other political activity in Harrisburg.
As the judge announced his decision, Ireland’s attorney, Reid Weingarten, dropped his head and smiled. Supporters of Ireland, 80, flocked to shake his hand.
“It’s unusual,” Weingarten said of the ruling, “but in this instance, it’s right on.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Consiglio declined to comment.
McCord pleaded guilty two years ago to extortion charges after being caught strong-arming donations from campaign contributors, including some who had state contracts. He also became a star witness for the government.
But during his three days on the stand, McCord provided such lukewarm support for the government’s case that prosecutors grew increasingly short with him, almost treating him as a hostile witness.
Ireland’s lawyer, Weingarten, noted in a motion filed last week that McCord repeatedly testified that he did not believe, until prosecutors convinced him otherwise, that he and Ireland were engaged in anything illegal.
At one point, Weingarten asked, “It is true, is it not, that in 2008, you never believed yourself to be in a bribery conspiracy with Dick Ireland? Correct?”
McCord replied: “That’s correct.”
In February, in a ruling permitting the case to go to trial, the judge appeared to accept the prosecution argument that they not prove that McCord delivered specific contracts to Ireland in exchange for specific promises.
Jones noted then that, “The indictment does not allege or set forth whether McCord accepted or acted upon the requests allegedly made by Ireland because the same is simply not required by the law.”
At trial, prosecutors showed that Ireland handed McCord a written sheet that showed campaign contributions listed as simply another business expense, along with “overhead” and taxes. Ireland didn’t know that McCord had become a government informer. McCord promptly turned the sheet over to prosecutors.
The government also played a juror tapes secretly made by McCord of him and Ireland talking. In one, McCord asks for a $100,000 campaign contribution and Ireland replies:
“Well, let’s work on it. you’ve been a great friend. I’m with you a hundred percent. And, you know … like we tell everybody, we’re on Broad Street.”
McCord replied: “Two-way street.”
In another tape played by prosecutors, Ireland also speculated about whether McCord’s personal financial problems would be helped “if we put you on the payroll after you left Treasury.”
In their motion seeking dismissal, Ireland’s lawyer dismissed that comment as a “half-hearted” remark that came well after Ireland’s firms had won many contracts.
The prosecutors also argued that Ireland had surreptiously funneled $150,000 in campaign donations to McCord from executives of his firm — for gifts that were really from him. They said he even used two charities – a food bank and program to fight cancer – as cut-outs to hide his secret campaign gifts. The defense said these money laundering charges had no merit if the main corruption case collapsed.
The Ireland case is only one of several to grow out of the investigation by prosecutors and FBI agents in Harrisburg.
McCord is facing sentencing for his own guilty plea to charges of attempted extortion of campaign donors in a case unrelated to Ireland. In June, prosecutors are scheduled to go to trial in charges brought against former state Treasurer Barbara Hafer. She is charged with lying to the FBI in denying that was given a $675,000 consultant’s contract by Ireland after leaving office in 2004 – the very sort of deal that figured in the McCord trial.
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