Prosecutor refuses plea deal as judge balks on jail time

A trial has been scheduled for Pierce O’Donnell after a federal judge refused Monday to sentence him to jail time and prosecutors declined to budge from a plea agreement that would have seen the famed litigator serve six months in prison on charges of making illegal campaign contributions.

U.S. District Judge James Otero said Monday that O’Donnell, perhaps most famous for representing Art Buchwald in the suit that exposed studio accounting practices, showed an exceptional record of contributions to the community that made jail time unwarranted. He also cited health concerns, including input from experts who said that O’Donnell suffers from bipolar disorder.

But federal prosecutor Dennis Mitchell refused to agree to a sentence without the jail time, arguing that it was sending “a message to the community” about the gravity of O’Donnell’s offense.

O’Donnell pled guilty last summer to two misdemeanor counts of illegal contributions to John Edwards’ 2004 presidential campaign, in which he got 10 employees of his law firm and others to each contribute $2,000 to the campaign, for which he would then reimburse them. The plea agreement called for six months in prison, one year of supervised release and a $20,000 fine.

Otero instead wanted to sentence O’Donnell to three years’ probation, including six months detention with an electronic monitoring device. Mitchell refused, leading to a contentious hearing in the Los Angeles courtroom in which Otero said that the government was “interfering with the sentencing power of the court.”

“What you are causing taxpayers here is a significant amount of money,” Otero told Mitchell, going so far as to predict that the “outcome will be the same” during a trial.

“This is a person who has impeccable character who has made a mistake in his life caused by a psychiatric condition,” Otero said. Nevertheless, he scheduled a trial to begin on Jan. 31.

Exacerbating O’Donnell’s case was that he already pled guilty in 2006 to misdemeanor state charges of making “conduit” contributions to the 2001 mayoral campaign of James Hahn.

O’Donnell was clearly pleased with Monday’s outcome, even if it extends even further a case that has cost him huge sums. His attorney, Brian 0′Neill, called the developments “unprecedented” and said of prosecutors’ refusal to agree to the judge’s proposed sentence, “I actually think it is personal at this point between the prosecutor and maybe me.”

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