Colorful Commissioner William Beavers may need to take stand in his own defense
BY LISA DONOVAN AND KIM JANSSEN Staff Reporters December 2, 2012 7:02PM
Cook County Commissioner William Beavers at meeting of Finance Committee of the Board of Commissioners of Cook County in County Board Chambers, 118 N. Clark Street Wednesday, February 29, 2012. | John H. White~Chicago Sun-Times.
Updated: January 4, 2013 6:10AM
He once compared himself to a large-testicled pig, and the prosecutor who charged him to a castrated rooster.
If anyone could liven up a dry federal tax fraud case, it’s probably the self-proclaimed “hog with the big nuts,” Cook County Commissioner William Beavers.
But on the eve of his trial it remains an open question whether the colorful, quotable 77-year-old will take the stand in his own defense.
“I believe I will,” the South Side Democrat — one of the last of the old-time political tough guys — said in a short interview with the Sun-Times.
Beavers faces up to three years behind bars, fines, public disgrace and the automatic loss of his job if convicted on charges he failed to pay taxes on $225,000 he took from his campaign funds and spent on personal expenses, including what’s alleged to be a series of heavy gambling losses at the Horseshoe Casino in Hammond.
Despite that, the sharp-suited onetime alderman insists he’s not feeling the heat.
“No, no I’m not nervous at all,” he said, before declining to answer further questions and hanging up on a reporter.
A jury for what’s expected to be a two-week trial is due to be selected Monday, with Beavers’ attorneys saying it will be a “game-time decision” whether Beavers testifies.
The pressure for him to do so increased significantly last week when Judge James Zagel ruled Beavers will have to take the stand if he wants to introduce the two main arguments he’s relied on since he was indicted: that he’s being targeted for failing to cooperate with the FBI, and that he later amended his tax returns and paid back the missing funds.
Prosecutors say Beavers fixed his taxes after the fact to cover up his wrongdoing, but his attorneys indicated in hearings last week that Beavers insists he made an “honest mistake” that he rectified as soon as he could.
The commissioner — also accused of moving $69,000 from his campaign to his city pension without paying taxes — doesn’t exactly mince words, and if he does take the stand it could make for intriguing courtroom drama.
When a Sun-Times reporter broke the news to him in February that he’d been indicted, he offered an immediate defense: that the feds wanted him to wear a wire on fellow Cook County Commissioner John Daley, the former mayor’s brother.
Though that comment angered Commissioner Daley, who accused Beavers of trying to distract the public from his own problems, federal agents have since acknowledged that Daley’s last name did come up in a conversation about Beavers cooperating.
Further evidence of Beavers’ volatile nature came a day after his indictment, when he blew up when asked whether he’d step down from his county board seat. He then took aim at then-U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, whose office is prosecuting Beavers.
“F--- him,” Beavers said at the time, later comparing Fitzgerald to a capon — a neutered male chicken.
For years, the former Chicago cop used that same baritone voice, deepened by decades of smoking, to browbeat city department heads and former Mayor Richard M. Daley into sharing the gravy train of city contracts with black businesses.
A County Commissioner since 2006, he was a strong ally of former Board Presidents John and Todd Stroger, but has clashed often with the current Board President, Toni Preckwinckle.
Proud of his power over government contracts and hiring decisions, Beavers likely wouldn’t have enjoyed Zagel’s assessment last week that it was possible “the vast majority of jurors will not have heard of the defendant.”
If he elects not to testify, the ripest courtroom exchanges could be between the laconic Zagel and Beavers’ garrulous lead attorney, Sam Adam Jr. Adam’s theatrical style, honed in the less restrictive atmosphere of the county courts at 26th and California, visibly irritated Zagel during former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s first trial in 2010, and could butt up against a series of rulings Zagel has made about what lawyers can say during opening arguments.
Adam and the rest of Beavers’ legal team will probably wait until the government has presented its case before deciding whether to put Beavers on the stand, according to James Marcus, a former assistant U.S. attorney who has prosecuted tax fraud cases, and now defends clients against them.
“You have to see how strong the government’s case is first,” Marcus said. “The risk is that, under federal guidelines, your sentence will be increased if you’re found to have lied in your testimony.”
Todd Haugh, a professor specializing in white-collar crime at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, agreed that no lawyer likes to leave his client open to cross-examination, but indicated Beavers might not have much choice.
Defending with what is, in essence, a straightforward tax case without access to your two strongest arguments, “Seems like a pretty difficult thing to do,” he said.