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Federal appeals court reinstates charges against L.A. attorney Pierce O'Donnell

The prosecutors plan to move forward with the 2004 John Edwards campaign finance case.

June 15, 2010|By Scott Glover, Los Angeles Times

A panel of judges from the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday reinstated a pair of criminal campaign finance charges against prominent Los Angeles attorney Pierce O'Donnell.

The panel concluded that a federal judge erred last year in dismissing the two charges against O'Donnell, who was accused of illegally funneling $26,000 of his own money through straw contributors to the 2004 presidential campaign of John Edwards.

According to prosecutors, the contributions of $2,000 per person were made primarily by employees of O'Donnell's law firm and some of his family members with the understanding that they would later be reimbursed by O'Donnell.

The charges were tossed out last year by U.S. District Judge S. James Otero, who ruled that the conduct described by prosecutors in their indictment did not violate the federal law under which O'Donnell was charged.

The 9th Circuit panel disagreed. In a ruling written by Judge Raymond C. Fisher, the judges concluded that the federal statute in question prohibits anyone from soliciting another to donate to a candidate for federal office in their own name if — either in advance or by previously agreed upon reimbursement — the money that person contributes is being furnished by the person who solicited them.

As a result of the ruling, the charges were reinstated and the case was ordered back to Otero's court.

Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for U.S. Atty. Andre Birotte, said prosecutors were "very pleased" with the ruling and planned to move forward with the case.

Washington, D.C.-based attorney George J. Terwilliger III, one of O'Donnell's lawyers, said in a statement, "We are reviewing today's decision and considering our next steps. One option is to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse the 9th Circuit. We will be looking at that possibility."

The case against O'Donnell was filed two years ago when Thomas P. O'Brien, a Republican appointed by former president George W. Bush, was U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles. Conviction of the felony charges could have ended O'Donnell's legal career.

O'Donnell's lawyers had questioned whether the case against him was politically motivated because he was an outspoken critic of the Bush administration's civil rights policies in the wake of 9/11and was suing the government on behalf of victims of Hurricane Katrina.

To support their notion that O'Donnell was being singled out, his lawyers presented prosecutors with 21illegal campaign contribution cases they said were handled administratively by the Federal Elections Commission, even though most involved larger amounts of money and more egregious conduct than what was alleged in O'Donnell's case.

scott.glover@latimes.com

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