Federal Court Rejects Plea Deal For St. Clair County Judge Caught Up In Drug Scandal | St. Louis Public Radio

Federal Court Rejects Plea Deal For St. Clair County Judge Caught Up In Drug Scandal

Feb 26, 2014

A federal court in Illinois has rejected a plea agreement that would have sent former St. Clair County judge Michael Cook to prison for 18 months on drug and weapons charges.

Judge Joe McDade, who normally presides over federal cases in Peoria, Ill., told attorneys for both sides today that he did not believe the proposed sentence was long enough to assure St. Clair County residents that their judiciary was in good hands. McDade was assigned to the case after two judges from the Southern District recused themselves. 

"Just because Mr. Cook was a judge doesn't mean that I should throw the book at him," McDade said. "That's not justice. But the court cannot accept that an 18-month sentence serves the purpose of sentencing in this case."

Cook and his attorneys may now try to negotiate another deal with a sentence they believe Judge McDade will accept, or throw out the plea and go to trial. Neither side commented to the media after the hearing, though they conversed at length in the courtroom following the meeting and appeared to go back to the judges' chambers. 

McDade's decision is not necessarily a surprise.  In a January court filing, he told attorneys he could think of three reasons to give Cook a higher sentence:

"[G]iven his status as a judge, the extensive duration of defendant's criminal conduct without any effort to obtain treatment for his drug addiction; (2) the disruption of governmental functions; and (3) loss of public confidence in the judicial system caused by defendant's criminal conduct ..."

Cook was arrested in early May and resigned from the bench a week later. He pleaded guilty in November to a count of heroin possession and to being a drug user in possession of a firearm. The charges and plea were all part of a broader drug scandal that resulted in the fatal overdose of another St. Clair County judge, Joe Christ, who was at a hunting cabin owned by Cook's family when he died. A former probation official, James Fogarty, frequently sold drugs to both Cook and Christ and another dealer, Sean McGilvery, had appeared in front of Cook as a defendant on several occasions.

Cook's pending cases were reassigned to other judges in St. Clair County after he stepped down. Three defendants had their convictions vacated. Two who are facing murder charges will go to trial in April. A third defendant pleaded guilty to burglary charges and is serving a three-year sentence at the state prison in Vandalia.

St. Clair County state's attorney Brendan Kelly said in a statement that a review of all of Cook's other cases by two former prosecutors, one from each party, found no other problematic cases.

Local activists were pleased with Judge McDade's decision. Melinda Hult, a Belleville City Council member and Republican candidate for state representative, said most citizens had come to the conclusion that 18 months was "ridiculous."

"It is good that someone from outside the area came in and seems to be ready to serve justice, not serve the political party," she said. Cook's family was well-connected in Democratic political circles.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann