Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Ex-Treasurer Rob McCord(D) enters guilty plea to attempted extortion

2/18/2015
by Mike Wereschagin and Natasha Lindstrom

AP
Former Pennsylvania state treasurer Rob McCord arrives at the U.S. District Court in Harrisburg on Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2015.

His guilt established, Rob McCord's next legal battles will be over how much time and money the former state treasurer will lose to the federal government.

McCord pleaded guilty Tuesday to two federal counts of attempted extortion for shaking down two state contractors for campaign money during the Democratic primary for governor. Legal experts say it's unlikely his sentence will be anything near the maximum penalty of 40 years in prison and a $500,000 fine.

U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III scheduled a pre-sentencing conference for June 29.

“This is one of those times when things are supposed to be very wide open, and the judge takes everything into account,” said Bruce Antkowiak, a former federal prosecutor and law professor at St. Vincent College near Latrobe.

Whether McCord cooperated with investigators, the damage to public confidence in government and the amount of money involved will factor into the sentence, Antkowiak said.

State law requires employees to forfeit their pensions if convicted of theft by extortion, using their office to commit crimes or using their official influence improperly. The statute was written for state crimes but applies to federal crimes “that are substantially the same,” the law states.

“When a member (of the pension system) is sentenced for, or pleads to, federal crimes, the pension forfeiture determination isn't as straightforward as with state crimes,” said Pamela Hile, state retirement system spokeswoman.

Hile said it's too early to say how long it will take to decide whether McCord should lose his pension.

McCord earned a maximum annual pension of $17,111 in six years as treasurer, according to Tribune-Review calculations using the state's pension formula. He was paid a $155,813 salary in 2014.

McCord's lawyer, Robert Welsh, did not respond to calls and emails.

McCord, 55, a former venture capitalist from Bryn Mawr, was midway through his second term when he resigned suddenly with little explanation last month, saying he intended to pursue private-sector opportunities.

When word leaked the next day about a federal corruption investigation, McCord released a video through his attorney admitting that he warned contractors they did not want to make an “enemy” of the treasurer. He made his resignation immediate and said he would plead guilty.

Federal authorities did not identify the contractors but described them as a Western Pennsylvania land management company and a Philadelphia law firm.

“Public corruption cases are some of the most serious cases our office handles, and this case indicates a serious breach of the public trust,” said Dennis C. Pfannenschmidt, first assistant U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg.

McCord tried several times last spring to get the head of a Philadelphia law firm to approve a $25,000 donation to him through his neighbor, who was an attorney for that firm, according to court documents. The managing partner of the firm supported Gov. Tom Corbett, a Shaler Republican who lost his re-election bid to Tom Wolf.

When people didn't donate what McCord thought was enough, he said they didn't grasp that even if he lost, “I'm still gonna be the freakin' treasurer.”

McCord believed the property management company was not living up to a commitment to contribute significantly to his campaign. He admitted putting increasing pressure on a fundraiser to get the people running the company to come through, records show.

McCord's stature as a statewide elected official could cut both ways when he's sentenced, Antkowiak said.

Because of McCord's prominence, the judge could decide that the crimes weakened public confidence in government and demand a stiff penalty to help undo the damage, Antkowiak said. On the other hand, if there's no evidence of other missteps, the judge could decide this is a brief lapse from someone who otherwise showed dedication to public service, he said.

Which of those two statements is true will be the subject of pre-sentencing battles between prosecutors and McCord's lawyers, Antkowiak said.

McCord's lawyer and the U.S. Attorney's Office declined to say whether McCord cooperated with investigators, another key factor the judge will weigh at sentencing.

Mike Wereschagin and Natasha Lindstrom are Trib Total Media staff writers. Reach Wereschagin at mwereschagin@tribweb.com and Lindstrom at nlindstrom@tribweb.com.


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