Usually the closer you get to something, the better you can see it. But when St. Clair County politics is the object under inspection, clarity seems to improve with distance.
That's certainly the case with Michael Cook, a former St. Clair County judge. He resigned from the bench before pleading guilty to heroin possession and a weapons charge.
Cook's attorneys negotiated an 18-month prison sentence with Stephen Wigginton, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Illinois. Cook's presentence investigation stated there were no factors "that would warrant a departure from the applicable sentencing range."
But Joe Billy McDade, the federal judge from Central Illinois assigned to the case -- someone who isn't a St. Clair County political insider and who doesn't owe anybody here anything -- may reject that deal.
In a court order last week, McDade cites three reasons that a steeper sentence may be in order:
* The long duration of Cook's criminal conduct without any effort to get drug treatment. (According to information in search warrants, Cook's drug use began before he was appointed a judge.)
* The disruption of governmental functions.
* The loss of public confidence in the judicial system caused by Cook's behavior.
McDade stated that the sentence "should reflect the seriousness of the crime." He cited the need for "adequate deterrence to criminal conduct."
In St. Clair County, a place with a history of political corruption, politics is all about who you know. Judge McDade reminds us that public officials can and should be held to a high standard regardless.