Former St. Clair County drug court judge Michael Cook must spend two years in prison for possessing heroin and using it while possessing firearms, U.S. District Judge Joe McDade ruled at a hearing on March 28.
“When judges fall from grace they should expect to fall a little harder,” McDade said.
At a hearing a month earlier, McDade had rejected a plea agreement that would have put Cook behind bars for 18 months.
He retains the right to appeal, which he would have waived under the plea agreement.
Cook’s lawyer, Bill Lucco of Edwardsville, asked McDade for six months, the high end of federal court guidelines.
U.S. Attorney Stephen Wigginton gave up ground instead of following McDade’s direction, asking again for 18 months while surrendering protection from appeal.
McDade held to his previous position that 18 months didn’t reflect the impact of Cook’s crimes on public confidence in the judiciary.
Twice he quoted a statement of St. Clair County Chief Judge Charles Baricevic, that citizens are skeptical about the judiciary.
He referred to reports of the Belleville News-Democrat, the Record and CBS. Some of the reports discussed the loss of public confidence in the judiciary, he said. One editorial noted “shenanigans” in St. Clair County.
Lucco opened the hearing with a surprise witness, retired St. Clair County judge James Radcliffe, who called himself “a recovering drunk for 34 years.”
He said addicts don’t reach out for help.
“You hit the bottom or the bottom is brought up to you,” Radcliffe said. “Very rarely does the intellect advise – yes, I’m an addict and I’m going to the hospital.”
He said he got involved with Cook on a regular basis after Cook came out of Hazelden treatment center in Minnesota.
“Mike has done a great job from the recovery side,” he said.
“The whole thing is a tragic situation and he has dealt with it as solidly as a heroin addict can,” he said.
McDade asked if an addict loses common sense. He said a judge in a drug court would know that if an addiction came out, it would embarrass him.
Radcliffe said, “Your wiring is messed up. You don’t believe you’re ever going to get caught.”
In response to a question from another Cook lawyer, Tom Keefe, Jr. of Belleville, Radcliffe said, “He’s a good solid guy that’s sick.”
“Recovery is surrender. Tell me what to do and I’ll do it.
“The day he was arrested is the day his life was saved.”
Radcliffe said Cook got good reviews as a judge.
“His denial was being fed by his performance,” Radcliffe said.
McDade said it amazed him that Cook didn’t take advantage of the state’s lawyer assistance program.
“It’s confidential, there is no stigma attached to it, and you get a lot of love and support,” McDade said.
He asked if Cook’s addiction didn’t manifest itself to family and friends.
Radcliffe said Cook was able to function.
“Nobody had a clue,” he said.
“The folks around the addict become sick. They develop certain behaviors that are dependent on the addict.”
McDade asked Wigginton for comments.
Wigginton said county probation officer Jim Fogarty, who sold cocaine to Cook, didn’t know Cook used heroin.
“I know that sounds difficult to believe,” Wigginton said.
Fogarty has begun a five year sentence for selling cocaine to the late judge Joe Christ, though he successfully denied selling the dose that killed Christ.
Wigginton then tried to convince McDade that Cook’s crimes did not disrupt the function of the government.
“Everyone agrees that he was a good judge, a fair judge,” Wiggington said.
He said his office reviewed orders awarding new trials to three defendants, and found trouble with all three.
“There were no allegations of error or prejudice,” Wigginton said.
He said the orders prevented the state’s attorney from appealing. “We found no legal basis for the state court to grant those trials,” he said.
If Cook wasn’t a judge, his case wouldn’t be in federal court, Wigginton said.
“He is a good father, a good husband, and he comes from a great family,” he said.
“He has a big heart and a caring heart.”
McDade asked how many weapons were seized from Cook’s residence, and Wigginton tossed the question to assistant U.S. attorney James Porter to answer.
Porter said he didn’t have the list. He said about 25 were seized at the Cook hunting lodge and about 20 at his home.
“They weren’t all his,” Porter said.
Wigginton said there was no weapon on Cook or in his vehicle at the time of his arrest. Cook could have been diverted to state court, and eligible for probation.
He said that criticism of 18 months as lenient was absurd.
“No stone has been unturned,” he said. “We did not whitewash this.”
Next, Lucco quoted letters of Cook’s supporters and said, “If they had had any hint, this would have been headed off. There would have been an intervention.”
Lucco said he was never happy about the 18 month agreement.
“I had never agreed to a sentence above the guideline,” he said.
He said he conceded that Cook caused great embarrassment and shame.
“We are willing to recommend he must go to jail,” he said.
He also said the case was burdened by the media.
“Our system doesn’t sentence people based on sound bites or headlines,” he said.
He said that if Cook wasn’t a judge, he might not have a conviction.
“He has already been dealt a tough hand here by the way he was charged,” he said. “It’s too bad that Mike Cook was so good at being an addict.
“Kids and dogs like Mike Cook. Mike Cook likes kids and dogs. He will rebuild his life regardless of his sentence.”
McDade called a recess, and returned to pronounce judgment.
First he offered Cook a chance to speak.
Cook said, “I know I have embarrassed the bench. I know I have embarrassed the bar association. Worst of all, I have embarrassed my family.”
He sat, and McDade said that by all accounts he did his job well.
The combination of addiction and being a judge is lethal to the integrity of a court system.
He said courts can’t operate without respect.
McDade said Cook used heroin daily starting in 2008, and cocaine two or three times a week starting in 2009.
“His drug use nearly mirrored his tenure on the bench,” he said.
He said Cook used 552 grams of heroin, which would equal more than a pound. A sentence for a dealer with that amount would range from 57 to 71 months.
McDade said Christ’s death did not deter Cook from continuing to use heroin.
He fined Cook $10,000 and ordered him to pay for his own incarceration, which will cost about $65,000.
He told Cook, “Your life isn’t over. You are still young enough to have a good life.
“I take no pleasure in having to do what I have done. I wish the best for you.
“I hope the citizens of St. Clair County understand there have been no shenanigans.”