Ill. lawmaker pleads not guilty to fraud charges

CHICAGO – Indicted state Rep. LaShawn Ford pleaded not guilty to charges related to bank fraud Tuesday during his first appearance in federal court.

Defense attorney Thomas Durkin entered the plea for the Chicago Democrat during a short hearing where Ford declined to comment.

After the hearing, Ford – who was first elected in 2006 – thanked the dozens of supporters who came to the hearing. They cheered and applauded after he left the courtroom.

"I love all my family and friends. They came because they wanted not because I asked them to," an emotional Ford told reporters after the hearing. He appeared to wipe away tears from his eyes after greeting the crowd, which included friends, family and community activists.

Prosecutors allege Ford, 40, made false statements to a bank to get a $500,000 increase on a line of credit starting as early as 2005. They say Ford, who has also worked in real estate, told the now failed ShoreBank he would use the money to rehabilitate investment properties but instead used the funds for expenses like car loans, credit cards, casino payments and his 2006 election campaign.

Ford was charged with eight counts of bank fraud and nine counts of submitting false information to the bank in a grand jury indictment. Each count carries a penalty of up to 30 years in prison and up to $1 million in fines.

His next court date was set for Jan. 11, when Ford is likely to be in Springfield for session. U.S. District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer said Ford could miss the hearing if his attorneys were present.

Ford is the third sitting Illinois lawmaker currently facing charges. Veteran lawmaker state Sen. Donne Trotter, a Chicago Democrat, was charged for allegedly trying to bring a gun on an airplane; he was arrested last week at O'Hare International Airport. Also, state Rep. Derrick Smith, a Chicago Democrat, faces federal bribery charges.

Ford — who has operated Ford Desired Real Estate, Inc. and invested personally in real estate — declined Tuesday to talk about anything related to the charges. Instead he used the chance to plug a town hall meeting on education in his district which includes parts of Chicago's West Side and suburbs. Ford is free on a recognizance bond.

Durkin said the charges likely amounted to mistakes on bank documents and called the government's investigation into question.

"These charges are unfounded," Durkin told reporters after the hearing. "This investigation ought to be questioned as to why he was charged. There should be questions raised as to why at this stage in the game, why these charges were brought five to six years later. These are garden variety bank fraud charges that have nothing whatsoever to do with public office."

Federal prosecutors did not speak with reporters.

Also Tuesday, an attorney for indicted state Rep. Derrick Smith, was in federal court for a status hearing on his bribery case, though no action was taken.

In August, lawmakers voted Smith out of the House – the first such expulsion in more than a century. He was arrested earlier in the year in an FBI sting and is accused of accepting a $7,000 bribe in exchange for supporting what he thought was a grant application for a daycare center. He has pleaded not guilty.

Smith refused calls by Democratic leaders to take his name off the November ballot and won his seat back over a candidate backed by Democratic Party officials.

Trotter – who has declared that he's running for Jesse Jackson Jr.'s former congressional seat – was expected in court Wednesday. He faces a felony gun charge after being stopped by security at O'Hare. Trotter has told police he uses the gun for his job at a security firm and forgot it was in his bag.

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