By HANNAH MEISEL
Capitol News Illinois
Monday was supposed to have been the first day in the weeklong federal corruption trial of former Republican state Sen. Sam McCann, who allegedly misused more than $200,000 in campaign funds for personal expenses.
A pull-down projector screen in the Springfield courtroom of U.S. District Judge Colleen Lawless stood ready to play host to prosecutors’ presentation prepared to accompany their opening statements.
But in a bizarre turn of events as Lawless took the bench on Monday morning, McCann presented a pair of last-minute motions to represent himself – ditching his latest court-appointed attorneys – and delay the trial for at least the 13th time.
“I’m not a professional…but I care about the outcome,” McCann told the judge, acknowledging he isn’t an attorney, nor did he finish college.
Lawless chided McCann for not actually answering her question of whether he was familiar with the federal rules of evidence, later adding that a “trained lawyer” would represent him far better than any defense case he’d put on as a pro se litigant.
“I think it is unwise for you to represent yourself in this proceeding,” Lawless said before ultimately approving both of McCann’s motions and rescheduling the trial for the week of Feb. 5.
During a final pretrial conference last week, Lawless had already approved McCann’s request to have the case heard in a bench trial setting, instead of a trial by jury.
After the hourlong court session Monday morning, McCann briefly explained to reporters outside the courthouse that he’d come to his decision over the long Thanksgiving holiday weekend, when he’d hoped “a better defense” would materialize from his court-appointed attorneys.
“I’ve been counting on other people to do everything they could do for me,” McCann said. “And that hasn’t worked out. And so now I’m going to do everything I can do. And we’ll let the good Lord take care of the rest.”
‘Scheme to defraud’
McCann had been out of public office for more than two years in February 2021 when a federal grand jury indicted him on seven counts of wire fraud and one count each of money laundering and tax evasion.
The president of his own construction company, McCann narrowly defeated popular Democratic state Sen. Deanna Demuzio in the Republican wave of 2010. He held that seat for eight years, stepping away from it only to run as a third-party candidate for governor in 2018.
McCann had established the “Conservative Party” that summer, leaving the GOP he believed wasn’t conservative enough under then-Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner. Two years earlier, Rauner had spent millions backing an opponent to McCann in 2016, but organized labor came through for McCann, who held onto his seat.
In 2018, organized labor again intervened on McCann’s behalf, seeking to siphon Republican votes away from Rauner, who was easily defeated anyway by Democrat JB Pritzker. McCann ultimately received 4.2 percent of the November 2018 vote, or nearly 193,000 votes.
But throughout the two political battles – through the spring of 2020, according to federal prosecutors – McCann had allegedly been mismanaging some of the more than $5 million that had been donated to his various political accounts.
According to state records, McCann’s construction businesses saw their corporate statuses dissolved by the secretary of state’s office in late 2013 for failure to pay taxes and file required annual reports. The federal Internal Revenue Service also began looking into McCann’s businesses, hitting him with hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax liens.
Against the backdrop of business troubles, the feds allege that beginning in 2015, McCann “engaged in a scheme to convert more than $200,000 in contributions and donations made to his campaign committees to pay himself and make personal purchases,” according to a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s office at the time of his indictment.
McCann also allegedly concealed his fraud “from donors, the public, the Illinois State Board of Elections and law enforcement authorities,” according to the feds.
He allegedly used some of that money to pay his mortgage, personal debts, buy personal vehicles and even pay himself.
In addition to spending roughly $60,000 on a 2017 Ford Expedition and a 2018 Ford F-250 pickup truck – along with the fuel and insurance costs for the vehicles – McCann also allegedly purchased two recreational vehicles with campaign funds.
He sought to turn those RVs into a business opportunity, according to the feds, establishing an account with an RV rental business in Ohio to rent out the vehicles. He’d put that account under the name “Sam McCann.”
At that same company, McCann made another account as a potential renter under the name “William McCann” – his legal first name – and proceeded to “rent” the vehicles to himself, paid for by campaign funds.
McCann also allegedly spent $50,000 in campaign funds on credit card payments related to a family vacation in Colorado and charges from Apple iTunes, Amazon, a skeet and trap club, Cabela’s, Scheels, Best Buy, a gun store and cash withdrawals.
Shortly after being indicted, McCann claimed he was unemployed and had very little money to his name, while facing tens of thousands of dollars in debt.
His bleak financial picture earned him a court-appointed attorney, though he’s now been through five such attorneys, including those he ditched on Monday morning.
But McCann told reporters he wasn’t nervous about representing himself, saying “God’s got this,” and insisting he’s innocent.
“It’s obvious to me that no one is going to take this seriously, especially an appointed – I guess you get what you pay for,” he said.
McCann’s campaign account was dissolved by the Illinois State Board of Elections in August after he didn’t file required paperwork for more than two years. Though his account has a little more than $32,000 in it, the letter notifying McCann of the account dissolution noted he owes the Board of Elections $9,250 in fines.
The campaign account for McCann’s Conservative Party of Illinois, meanwhile, has a balance of $15.66, though it hasn’t filed its required quarterly reports since January 2022.
Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to hundreds of newspapers, radio and TV stations statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, along with major contributions from the Illinois Broadcasters Foundation and Southern Illinois Editorial Association.