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In last-minute reversal, former Sen. Sam McCann pleads guilty to corruption charges
Hannah Meisel
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In last-minute reversal, former Sen. Sam McCann pleads guilty to corruption charges

Prosecutors played hours of FBI recordings of McCann at trial prior to his plea

Capitol News Illinois

This story has been updated from a breaking news brief.

As federal prosecutors were preparing to rest their case Thursday in the corruption trial of former Republican state Sen. Sam McCann, the one-time gubernatorial candidate had a change of heart. 

His attorney announced McCann would reverse his position of innocence he’s held since being indicted three years ago and plead guilty on all counts. 

“You can’t take it back,” U.S. District Judge Colleen Lawless told McCann before he officially entered his guilty plea. “Are you still prepared to plead?”

“Yes, your honor,” McCann said.

After taking his plea, Lawless set his sentencing for June.

In the trial that kicked off Tuesday, prosecutors accused McCann of “greed, fraud and arrogance” in illegally using campaign funds for personal expenses, including paying two mortgages, financing multiple vehicles and vacations, fraudulently cutting himself checks for work not performed, and double-dipping on reimbursement for miles driven.

Read more: Feds accuse ex-lawmaker of ‘greed, fraud and arrogance’ in misusing campaign funds

In reading the charges one final time before McCann officially entered his plea on Tuesday afternoon, Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim Bass reiterated that prosecutors estimate McCann stole “in excess of $550,000” from campaign coffers in addition to committing money laundering and tax evasion in order to conceal his theft.

The government’s case was nearing a close after prosecutors on Wednesday and earlier Thursday morning played more than three hours of recordings made by federal agents who met with McCann on separate occasions in 2018.

McCann had been elected to the state Senate eight years earlier, but in April 2018 he left the Republican party and formed the Conservative Party of Illinois in order to run as a third-party candidate for governor. Organized labor, which had a vested interest in ensuring then-GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner didn’t get a second term in office, poured $3 million into McCann’s campaign.

In one of the FBI tapes, McCann said he’d never seen that kind of money before, echoing his comments in his first interview with agents on July 30, 2018.

“I got into this because I always wanted to serve my country,” he said, saying that he’d sustained an injury after signing up for the Marine Corps and couldn’t go to basic training as a result. “I was determined to prove that a poor person can be involved in a government for the people, by the people.”


‘Clear systematic...conversion’

The question of wealth – or lack thereof – is a centerpiece of the government’s case against McCann. And by the end of the agents’ four meetings with McCann in summer 2018, McCann knew the outlines of the case the feds were building against him.

“This isn’t a matter of a few items, this is a matter of tens of thousands of dollars,” one agent told McCann as the pair met with him at his residence in Plainview, about 50 miles southwest of Springfield. “This is a clear systematic continuation over the years of conversion of campaign funds to personal benefit.”

McCann had a hard time explaining to the agents why, for example, his campaign had “leased” a motor home and camper trailer that McCann personally owned – or, for that matter, why the vehicles were titled to him personally when they were originally paid for by campaign funds.

Read more: In day 2 of trial, prosecutors detail former lawmaker’s alleged RV rental scheme

He also stumbled on his explanation of why he partially financed the purchase of an SUV and a pickup truck with campaign money, and how he was also claiming mileage reimbursements on those vehicles.

“You know what lying to a federal agent gets you,” one agent said, explaining that being untruthful could possibly land McCann in prison.

“And that’s what I’m trying to avoid,” McCann responded.


Continued payments

McCann met with the agents a second time the day after their first interview. As he showed them around his two adjoining properties in Carlinville, McCann admitted he’d missed a campaign event the night before “because, quite frankly, I was upset” after the previous day’s confrontation.

Even so, prosecutors alleged, McCann’s fraud didn’t stop after his interviews with the agents.

The feds claimed McCann funneled campaign money back to himself and his wife Vicki through an account Vicki shared with her mother, Magdalene Ramey. On Wednesday, Ramey took the witness stand and testified she’d never seen any of the checks that had passed in and out of her and Vicki’s joint account.

Most of them were written from McCann’s campaign account, though a few of them were written from the account to Vicki McCann and signed by Sam McCann, despite his name not being on the account.

“I don’t know anything about all them checks,” she said. “I never wrote them and I never received them.”

Bass showed Ramey a series of checks totaling thousands of dollars that were purportedly written out to her in fall 2018. Some of them had memo lines indicating campaign work, even though she emphasized in her testimony that she didn’t participate in McCann’s run for governor.

“Did you do $3,000 worth of consulting work in October 2018,” Bass asked Ramey after showing her a check for that amount dated Oct. 9 of that year.

“No,” she answered.

More than a year after McCann’s run for governor, he was still using campaign money for personal expenses, prosecutors allege. On New Year’s Eve of 2019, for example, McCann traded in a trailer he’d bought the previous year for a brand new one from a dealer in Alabama. On the invoice, McCann had given an address in Bushnell, Florida.

To pay the $12,500 difference, McCann wrote himself a series of checks from the Conservative Party of Illinois. In court on Thursday, Bass showed those checks, though none of them exactly line up with campaign finance records McCann filed with the State Board of Elections. When McCann’s name does show up as having received payments from the party, state records show he received them for “administration.”

In all, McCann paid himself $187,000 out of the Conservative Party’s account via a payroll service, making the former senator “able to conceal” those payments, Bass said. Additionally, the party paid $52,000 in payroll taxes.

Those payments continued through June of 2020. Eight months later, McCann was indicted.


Home confinement?

McCann’s trial had been delayed on numerous occasions, including in November when he fired his legal team and decided to represent himself, and last week when he was admitted to a St. Louis hospital for an undisclosed health issue. 

Lawless ordered McCann detained last week after he disobeyed her direct orders to communicate with the federal probation office after getting discharged. Aside from daily transfers to court, he’s been in the Macon County Jail since Friday.

Read more: Former lawmaker taken into custody amid delays to his corruption trial after sudden hospitalization

On Monday, the trial was delayed a final day when McCann abandoned his plans to represent himself, and his standby appointed counsel, Jason Vincent, stepped in. On Thursday, Vincent told Lawless that his client was hoping to be put on home confinement with an ankle monitor after pleading guilty.

But Bass said the government would be objecting to that, mentioning that any sort of plea bargain was off the table – and had been for many months since the former senator decided to go forward with trial.

“Let’s not put the cart before the horse,” he said.

He also said that the government’s objection to McCann’s release from federal custody was bolstered by learning of a video posted Tuesday night on McCann’s long-dormant social media pages.

In the 13-minute video, which Bass alleged was filmed as McCann drove to court on Friday morning before his arrest, McCann claims FBI agents squeezed him for incriminating information on others and said the government was coming after him with “an ungodly pack of lies.”

“Was it posted by somebody at the home where he’s asking to be released?” Bass asked Vincent before McCann officially pleaded guilty.

Vincent, who said he hadn’t yet seen the video, asked Lawless for a Friday hearing on McCann’s possible pre-sentencing release. Lawless said she’d likely watch the video during the hearing.

Huddled together, Vincent and McCann watched the video with the volume low at the defense table. When McCann stood to be sworn in before Lawless took his plea, the video continued to play on mute, the digital McCann’s mouth still moving on Vincent’s laptop computer screen as the McCann in the courtroom raised his right hand and took an oath to tell the truth.


Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to hundreds of newspapers, radio and TV stations statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, along with major contributions from the Illinois Broadcasters Foundation and Southern Illinois Editorial Association.


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