SPRINGFIELD – A former Illinois lawmaker pleaded guilty Wednesday to culling nearly $30,000 in money from a scholarship fund for personal and political use.
Prosecutors are recommending a six-month prison sentence for former state Rep. Constance Howard, a Chicago Democrat who resigned last year amid reports of a federal investigation. Howard, 70, took the rare step of waiving formal indictment and pleaded guilty in federal court in Springfield to one count of wire fraud before U.S. Magistrate Judge Byron Cudmore.
Prosecutors accused Howard of fraudulently raising funds intended for computer science students through the annual "Tee Off For Technology Celebrity Golf Outing." The event grew out of the tax-exempt "Tee Off for Technology" organization, which Howard founded in 2003.
Howard entered what is called a "conditional plea," which comes with a cap on possible sentencing. Otherwise, the fraud charge would carry a possible sentence of up to 20 years in prison, a fine of up to $250,000 and up to three years supervised release. U.S. Attorney Timothy Bass said the government will ask for a six-month prison term and six months of home confinement at her Nov. 21 sentencing.
Howard declined comment following the hearing, stepping quickly into a waiting car. Her attorney, Michael Metnick, said he planned to argue for less than the recommended sentence.
"We will bring to the court's attention all of the good that Constance Howard did as a state representative and citizen during her lifetime," he said. "I strongly believe that she should not serve time."
Wearing a purple suit with a cane by her side, Howard gave one-word answers in response to Cudmore's questions.
Cudmore warned Howard that she could be ordered to pay both court costs and the missing scholarship funds. He noted her agreement required further cooperation with the federal government, describing that action as "diving into a deep swimming pool from a tall diving board."
Prosecutors allege that from 2003 to 2007 Howard raised $76,700 by telling donors the money would pay for scholarships. But government attorneys say only five scholarships worth a total of $12,500 were dispersed. Howard ended up using around $28,000 for personal and political use, according to a court document filed by prosecutors on July 17.
Howard represented the Chicago-area's 34th district on the city's southwest side.
She stepped down from her $78,000-a-year post on July 6, 2012, for "personal reasons." Less than two weeks later, she received a federal subpoena seeking records about the scholarship fund. She had served as chair of the House computer technology committee.
Bass said Wednesday that Howard began talking to the federal government in 2012 before her resignation.
The Illinois Department of Public Health and the Department of Economic Opportunity were subpoenaed in 2009 about an AIDS awareness group Howard Helped found. The House clerk had been subpoenaed for financial records from Howard's office in 2010.
Former Howard staffer Lloyd Kelly pleaded not guilty last month on charges that he used state money intended for the "Let's talk, Let's Test" AIDS foundation he founded with Howard to cover personal expenses.
Bass would not comment on whether the federal investigation was over.
Howard is free on a $10,000 bond.
Associated Press writer Michael Tarm contributed to this report.