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Calif. judge rejects deal for lawyer as too harsh

By Linda Deutsch
AP Special Correspondent / November 14, 2011

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LOS ANGELES—A federal judge on Monday refused to approve a plea agreement that would have sent a prominent attorney to prison for making illegal campaign contributions to former Sen. John Edwards' presidential campaign.

U.S. District Judge S. James Otero said the plea deal in which Pierce O'Donnell agreed to serve six months in prison with a fine and other penalties was too harsh.

Otero urged Assistant U.S. Attorney Dennis Mitchell to consider O'Donnell's history of service to the Los Angeles community and to not pursue a costly trial. The judge suggested house arrest would be more appropriate.

But Mitchell said he wants a jury trial, which was set for Jan. 31.

The judge said the proposed agreement for six months in federal prison followed by a year of supervised release, 200 hours of community service and a fine of $20,000 was "not appropriate" for the misdemeanor crimes. He said O'Donnell "may have contributed more to the benefit of this community than anyone else in this courtroom."

O'Donnell's lawyer, Brian J. O'Neill, said the judge understood that the reason O'Donnell agreed to the terms proposed by the prosecution was to protect his right to continue practicing law. If convicted of a felony he could be disbarred.

The well-known attorney has represented many clients in high-profile trials, including writer Art Buchwald in a lawsuit that exposed questionable film studio accounting practices.

In a case which has stretched over seven years, O'Donnell pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts after he was accused of reimbursing others to make $26,000 in contributions to Edwards' 2004 presidential campaign.

Otero threw out the charges in 2008 but they were reinstated by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. A third charge was dismissed.

O'Donnell admitted soliciting employees of his law firm and a relative to donate $2,000 each to the Edwards campaign for which he reimbursed them, thus disguising that he was the true donor. Such donations, known as "conduit contributions," violate federal election laws.

O'Neill said he will be filing a number of pretrial motions to challenge the upcoming trial.

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