Will ex-judge Michael Cook get 18-month prison deal he bargained for?

News-DemocratFebruary 25, 2014 

At 12:15 p.m. Wednesday, former St. Clair County Circuit judge Michael Cook arrived at U.S. District Court in East St. Louis to learn whether he gets the 18-month prison deal he bargained for or whether U.S. District Judge Joe Billy McDade will reject the deal because he thinks Cook deserves a longer stint. With him is his father, prominent Belleville attorney Bruce Cook.

DERIK HOLTMANN/BND

On Wednesday, former St. Clair County Circuit judge Michael Cook will learn whether he gets the 18-month prison deal he bargained for or whether U.S. District Judge Joe Billy McDade will reject the deal because he thinks Cook deserves a longer stint.

Cook pleaded guilty to heroin use and gun charges in exchange for an 18-month sentence. McDade asked for a deeper presentence investigation because he saw three reasons Cook could deserve more time: Cook was a judge, the charges disrupted governmental functions and Cook's actions caused a loss of public confidence in the judicial system.

At least one federal informant told the FBI that Cook was using drugs before he was sworn in as a judge. That source, a former drug user, stated that Cook used heroin, cocaine, crack cocaine, marijuana and a variety of prescription painkillers. While on the bench, Cook presided over more than 1,700 felony cases, including being the sitting judge on the county's drug court.

Cook's drug use may have come to law enforcement's attention in August 2011 during a federal investigation into Justin D. Cahill, who was charged with conspiracy to distribute stolen OxyContin. Cahill told agents that he believed that by supplying more OxyContin pills for Cook, he would get less time for his felony driving under the influence charges.

The investigation intensified on March 10 when Cook discovered his colleague and friend, Joe Christ, dead on the bathroom floor of the Cook's family's hunting cabin in Pike County. It was later revealed the Christ died from cocaine toxicity. Cook continued to judge cases.

Cook was under surveillance by law enforcement months before his arrest, even as he sat on murder and other serious felony cases. One murder conviction was overturned after the federal investigation into Cook was revealed.

Federal agents arrested Cook, 43, on May 22 outside Sean McGilvery's home on North 38th Street in Belleville. He was later charged with possession of heroin and using a controlled substance while possessing weapons. Cook's arsenal included a 50-caliber sniper rifle. Cook, who presided over the county's drug court at the time, resigned from the bench and surrendered his law license after he was charged.

Former St. Clair County Probation Officer James Fogarty later told federal agents that he sold Cook and Christ an eighth of an ounce of cocaine days before Christ's death. He was later charged with cocaine distribution.

The revised presentence report was filed on Jan. 24 and sealed by a court order. Cook's legal team, consisting of Swansea attorneys Thomas Q. Keefe Jr., Thomas Q. Keefe III and Edwardsville attorney Bill Lucco, objected to the investigation on Feb. 7. A revision and addendum to the investigation was filed on Feb. 12. Assistant U.S. Attorney Jim Porter filed a response to Cook's objection on Feb. 13. All those documents are sealed, too.

But McDade may question both sides about the investigation on Wednesday before deciding whether to accept or reject Cook's plea agreement. Under the terms of the agreement, McDade can't impose a stiffer sentence, but can only accept or reject the plea agreement that calls for an 18-month sentence. The government entered the agreement because it ensured a prison sentence that is three times the maximum prison sentence for the charges Cook faced, Porter has said.

If McDade rejects the plea agreement, Cook could withdraw his guilty plea and go to trial or his lawyers would go back and try to negotiate another deal with prosecutors but with the understanding the judge is going to expect a longer sentence.

McGilvery was sentenced to 10 years in prison in January on distribution and conspiracy to distribute heroin. Fogarty is scheduled to be sentenced on Thursday. He is expected to receive a five-year prison sentence.

Contact reporter Beth Hundsdorfer at bhundsdorfer@bnd.com or 618-239-2570.

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