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Ford focus: Indicted state rep working hard to stay visible

Illinois Rep. LShawn Ford D-Chicago is seen House floor during sessiIllinois State Capitol Tuesday Dec. 4 2012 Springfield Ill. It

Illinois Rep. La Shawn Ford, D-Chicago, is seen on the House floor during session at the Illinois State Capitol Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012, in Springfield Ill. It was Ford's first session back in Springfield since being indicted Thursday, Nov. 29, in Chicago on federal bank fraud and other charges. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

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Updated: January 18, 2013 6:09AM

What’s it like to live in the bull’s
eye of the feds? I wondered Thursday as I put in an early morning call to recently indicted Illinois state Rep.
La Shawn Ford. Since it’s the holiday season, I started with a more charitable question: “How are you doing?”

A bitter chuckle on the other end. “It’s been like a dream that I never imagined,” Ford quietly replied. “I never expected to be in this position.”

He is in a bad spot, indeed. On Nov. 29 Ford was charged with fraudulently obtaining a $500,000 increase and a two-year extension on a line of credit from the now-closed ShoreBank. Federal prosecutors allege that, instead of plowing the money into his real estate investments, he used it for personal expenses and his 2006 campaign.

I have covered the chicanery of Chicago politicians since I was knee-high to a reporter’s notebook. This one was a surprise. Ford, 40, seemed to be one of the good guys — an active, community-centric legislator and rising star in the Democratic Party.

On Tuesday, as Ford pleaded not guilty in federal court, he was greeted by dozens of community leaders and other supporters. Unlike other politicians in legal jeopardy, he is staying out front and transparent. He has dispatched press releases and is making public appearances. Some of it is self-serving, but he is also, amazingly, about doing what he was elected to do: serve his constituents. Last week he organized an “emergency” town hall meeting on community concerns about potential school closings on the West Side.

The federal indictment, Ford acknowledged, “did sidetrack me a little bit, for a minute.” Now, he is focused on other concerns. “We’ve got a 70 percent dropout rate on the West Side,” he noted. He ticked off other sober trends he wants to address: More than 50 West Side schools could close next year. The vast majority of students in his district live in poverty.

He proclaims his innocence, of course, and that there is another side to the story. He is such a straight arrow, he said, he is even “afraid of the Chicago Police,” and added: “I would never lie to get a loan.”

At least he’s talking. State Sen. Donne Trotter, up on a felony gun charge, is eager to talk to Democratic Party bosses about an endorsement in the 2nd Congressional District, but not much else. Indicted state Rep. Derrick Smith has been invisible. Former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. has been ducking and dodging federal investigators — and the public — for four years.

I will be there for you, they all tell their constituents. I just can’t talk right now.

Yes, Ford is talking. And talking. In our rambling, 45-minute conversation, he issued many heartfelt denials, but not much hard evidence to prove his innocence.

Yet he fervently believes that somehow, he will convince prosecutors that it’s all a mistake. “I hope there is no reason for a trial. I hope the prosecutors will learn the full story.”

He may learn that in the bull’s eye, there’s not much room for hope.

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