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November 15, 2011 5:06 PM

Judge Rejects Pierce O'Donnell's Plea Agreement, Saying It's Too Harsh

Posted by Irene Plagianos

A federal judge in Los Angeles rejected a plea agreement between prosecutors and prominent attorney Pierce O’Donnell on Monday, saying a six-month prison term for the lawyer's illegal political contributions was too harsh. 

U.S. district judge James Otero instead recommended O'Donnell serve six months of home detention and a three-year sentence of probation for making the contributions to John Edwards's presidential campaign, sibling publication The National Law Journal reports.

Since the plea agreement is void, the government will go forward with its case against O'Donnell. Otero urged prosecutors not to proceed with a costly trial. But Assistant U.S. attorney Dennis Mitchell, the lead prosecutor, insisted during the hearing that the government "intends to proceed to trial on the indictment.” A jury trial date is set for January 31, according to the NLJ.

In August, O’Donnell pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of making illegal campaign contributions to the 2004 Edwards’s campaign. He admitted to reimbursing ten employees of his law firm $2,000 each for donations they made to the Edwards campaign. He agreed to a plea deal that included a six-month prison term, a $20,000 fine, and 200 hours of community service.

During Monday’s sentencing hearing, Otero said O'Donnell, a man with "impeccable character," had "made a mistake in his life caused by apparently a psychiatric condition," the NLJ reports. "This reflects a lapse of judgment that we as human beings sometimes make," Otero said. "In good conscience, I could not sentence this defendant to time with custody."

The nixed plea deal is the latest twist in a long legal saga for O'Donnell, a former Kaye Scholer partner who is famous for representing Art Buchwald in 1988 in his suit against Paramount that exposed some of Hollywood's questionable accounting procedures.

In July 2008 federal prosecutors indicted O'Donnell on three felony counts charging that the lawyer reimbursed $26,000 to 13 of his firm’s employees and other individuals who donated to Edwards’s campaign. Judge Otero dismissed two of the counts in June 2009, but those charges were reinstated a year later by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The third charge was dismissed by federal prosecutors, the NLJ reported.

In a 2010 interview with The American LawyerO'Donnell referred to the cases against him as a “shattering experience.” (Subscription required.)

In 2006 O’Donnell pleaded no contest to five misdemeanor charges under California law for using a false name to make political contributions to James Hahn, who ran for mayor of Los Angeles in 2001, according to the NLJ.

O'Donnell's lead lawyer, Jones Day partner Brian O’Neill, said he will be filing a number of pretrial motions to challenge the upcoming trial, the Associated Press reports.

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