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Our View: Not buying political retribution

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014 8:47 p.m. CDT

A local lawyer facing theft charges claims that DeKalb County prosecutors have hit him with more serious felony charges to get back at him for his political sympathies.

“It’s political retribution,” said K.O. Johnson, of Sycamore. “I supported the wrong guy in the last election.”

Sorry, but we’re not buying it.

Prosecutors accuse Johnson, who was licensed to practice law in Illinois in 1996, of withholding between $500 and $1,000 from a former employee’s paycheck but failing to invest it in her retirement fund in 2012, court records show. As with all criminal defendants, Johnson is presumed innocent until proven guilty. 

In July 2013, he was charged with misdemeanor theft, a crime punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine. Johnson said that after he refused to make a plea deal with prosecutors, they slapped him with the more serious charge on Feb. 14.

He contends that DeKalb County State’s Attorney Richard Schmack has it in for him because Johnson apparently supported former State’s Attorney Clay Campbell, whom Schmack defeated in a 2012 campaign.

Although we have disagreed with some decisions Schmack has made in office, we do not believe he would use the power of his office to settle petty political vendettas. Rather, it appears Schmack and his assistants are doing their jobs much as taxpayers expect.

What’s more, Schmack has better reason to be mistrustful of Johnson, considering he was involved in a complaint that resulted in Johnson having his law license suspended for 18 months Feb. 7.

Schmack, who was a bankruptcy attorney in private practice before being elected state’s attorney, is named in two separate counts of a complaint against Johnson filed with the Illinois Attorney Registration and Discipline Commission.

In both counts, Johnson was accused of deceit and dishonesty in billing divorce clients for legal fees that he knew had been discharged through bankruptcy. Schmack was the bankruptcy lawyer in both of those cases.

If anything, it seems Schmack’s office did Johnson a favor in not charging him first with a felony. As Schmack himself told reporter Andrea Azzo last week, “the facts supported a felony charge from the very beginning based on the dollar amount at issue.”

It’s not an uncommon tactic, however, for prosecutors to hold off on pressing the most serious charges they can in order to give themselves leverage in securing a plea bargain.

Prosecutors have to take a number of factors into consideration in criminal cases. Who the accused voted for in an election of almost two years ago is rarely one of them, and there’s nothing to suggest that is at play here.

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