Prison expert acquitted of scheming to bribe former Illinois corrections director

Judge: Alleged role in bribery not proved

A federal judge on Wednesday acquitted Michael J. Mahoney, a nationally known corrections expert, on charges that he schemed to bribe Illinois’ former top prison official to win lucrative state contracts for his lobbying clients.

After the verdict was announced, Mahoney exhaled sharply, wiped tears from his eyes and began hugging more than a dozen family members and supporters who attended the bench trial in the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse.

“It’s just an incredible relief for this ordeal to be over,” Mahoney, former head of the John Howard Association, a Chicago-based prison watchdog group, said later in a courthouse hallway. “It’s the most incredible character-building experience I’ve ever been through.”
Federal prosecutors alleged that Mahoney used a former business partner as a “bag man” to deliver about $20,000 in bribes to Donald Snyder Jr. while he headed the Illinois Department of Corrections from 1999 to 2002.

According to the charges, Snyder kicked back millions of dollars in state contracts to business clients of Mahoney and his partner, former Cook County Undersheriff John J. Robinson. Both Snyder and Robinson pleaded guilty last year and testified against Mahoney at the trial.

But U.S. District Judge James Zagel, who heard the case without a jury, found that prosecutors had not proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Mahoney participated in the scheme.

Zagel said the evidence showed that, at most, Mahoney suspected Robinson of paying bribes and chose not to interfere.

“I don’t think the law would require him to refuse [consulting] fees just because he knew it was possible someone else bribed a decision-maker,” Zagel said.

Zagel said he discounted Snyder’s testimony entirely, saying he was unreliable and his “alleged poor memory” was more likely a reluctance to come clean about what happened. Zagel also said he found Robinson’s testimony vague and unconvincing on several key points.

A spokesman for U.S. Atty. Patrick Fitzgerald declined to comment on the verdict.

In closing arguments Wednesday, Assistant U.S. Atty. Laurie Barsella said Mahoney had built a good reputation at John Howard but then chose to lobby on behalf of some of the same state prison vendors he was supposed to be policing.

In the process, he became a “stealth lobbyist” who was “using his watchdog position to earn buckets of money,” Barsella said.

Barsella argued that Robinson could not have orchestrated the bribery plan on his own, because it was Mahoney who had the close ties to Snyder and big-time lobbying clients.

“This scheme—pure and simple—did not happen without Mike Mahoney,” Barsella said. “Robinson was the bagman. . . . He was the sidekick.”

Defense lawyers argued that it made perfect sense for Robinson to keep Mahoney in the dark about any bribes. If Mahoney knew, he might put a halt to the scheme, they argued.

Thomas Anthony Durkin, an attorney for Mahoney, said in court that he had urged prosecutors not to indict Mahoney on the word of Snyder and Robinson.

“I am flabbergasted at the end [of the trial] to see the evidence was even worse than I thought was,” Durkin told Zagel.


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