CHICAGO – Triggering disagreement over just what constitutes public trust, a judge on Wednesday sentenced a famously brash Chicago Democrat to six months in prison for failing to declare campaign cash he spent at casinos as taxable income.
Prosecutors said former Cook County Commissioner William Beavers' tax evasion was little different than the public corruption that has plagued Illinois for decades. In a rare move after the hearing, Chicago's acting U.S. attorney criticized the judge's sentence as too lenient.
The normally effusive Beavers declined U.S. District Judge James Zagel's offer to make a statement before he was sentenced. But the 78-year-old quickly found his voice outside the courtroom after the hearing.
"I ain't begging for nothing," Beavers boomed when asked why he didn't ask Zagel to give him probation so that he wouldn't have to go to prison.
Zagel, who sentenced former Gov. Rod Blagojevich to 14 years in prison for corruption in 2011, agreed during the hearing that Beavers' tax dodge had further eroded voters' faith. But he also said not all violations of public trust are equal, arguing that misdeeds by more consequential figures higher up the chain, such as governors, should be punished more severely.
"And there is, in fact, no claim of great public achievement," Zagel said of Beavers, who also served for years as a Chicago alderman. "There is nothing in particular that distinguishes him."
That assessment of his power is a jarring contrast to Beavers' best known rhetorical flourish, when he once bragged about his influence by describing himself as a "hog with big nuts."
After the hearing, acting U.S. Attorney Gary Shapiro took the uncommon step of publicly criticizing a federal judge, telling reporters he thought a tougher penalty was warranted.
"I think this tends to undercut what we say about public trust in public officials," he said.
During his more than a quarter-century in Chicago politics, Beavers exuded a you-can't-touch-me persona. And even though he is bound for prison – ordered to report by Dec. 2 – he displayed the same bravado in the courthouse corridor.
"Listen, I'm a hero in my community," a smiling, cheerful Beavers told reporters. "My people love me ... for standing and fighting the government, one on one."
In arguing earlier that Beavers deserved nearly two years behind bars, prosecutor Matthew Getter told Zagel that corruption-minded politicians hadn't been deterred by watching a steady stream of colleagues go through federal court.
"This [corruption] isn't going to change until the risk-reward analysis of these people changes," he said.
Zagel, though, noted the government didn't prosecute Beavers for selling his influence or some other variant of public corruption.
"This is a common, ordinary offense ... of tax evasion," he said.
Gambling with political donors' money isn't against the law. Beavers' crime was not declaring its use as income.
Prosecutors said Beavers lost $500,000 at Indiana's Horseshoe Casino, sometimes writing himself one $2,000 campaign check after another on daylong gambling binges.
Beavers has said the government charged him in retaliation for his refusal in 2009 to wear a wire in a potential case against a fellow commissioner. He repeated that claim after Wednesday's hearing.
"They sent the FBI to try and make me a stool pigeon," he said. "I'm not a stool pigeon."
In sentencing Beavers, Zagel barred him from gambling or even walking into a casino for a year after his release. Zagel also fined him $10,000 and ordered he pay $30,848 in restitution to the IRS.
At Wednesday's hearing, prosecutors highlighted the unapologetic chord Beavers has struck since his 2012 indictment.
Getter, the prosecutor, handed the judge a copy of an article in Wednesday's Chicago Sun-Times in which Beavers was quoted as saying in an interview, "I'm not going to change."
"He remains absolutely unrepentant for what he did," Getter said.
Showing no emotion, Beavers looked on from a nearby defense table – his hands folded across his own copy of the day's Sun-Times.
Follow Michael Tarm at https://twitter.com/mtarm