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Mar 27, 3:15 PM EDT

Judge midtrial throws out Pennsylvania pay-to-play case



HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) -- A federal judge on Monday threw out a case in the FBI's wide-ranging pay-to-play investigation of Pennsylvania government, acquitting a wealthy investment adviser accused of bribing ex-state treasurer Rob McCord to get lucrative contracts to manage public dollars.

U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III took the rare step of dismissing the 79-count case against Richard Ireland in the middle of the trial. Jones agreed with defense lawyers that prosecutors had not proven that Ireland offered campaign contributions or his help in McCord's private business affairs in exchange for official favors from McCord.

Jones' ruling came after the prosecution rested in a two-week-old case that had included four days of testimony by McCord and hours of taped conversations between McCord and Ireland. Some of the tapes were made by McCord after he became a cooperating witness with the FBI in November 2014 and began wearing a wire to record Ireland.

In his comments in court, Jones said direct evidence was lacking of Ireland's intent to make such an exchange, and the government's key witnesses - McCord and his top aide at the Treasury Department - did not provide the testimony to fill in that gap.

Rather, McCord testified that he and Ireland never had an "if then" conversation in their many years of dealings, Jones said, and McCord and his top aide testified they had considered Ireland's requests on the merits.

The collapse of the government's key witnesses was "an impossible task" to overcome, Jones said.

"This is a tough call, but it's a call that has to be made," Jones said of his decision.

McCord resigned from office two years ago and pleaded guilty to extortion in a separate federal case involving his fundraising for his failed gubernatorial campaign. He awaits sentencing. During the trial, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Consiglio forced McCord to admit he had abused his office's powers in more ways than previously revealed by prosecutors in the extortion case.

The government cannot appeal Jones' decision. Ireland, 80, declined to comment while leaving the federal courts building in downtown Harrisburg. Defense lawyer Brian Heberlig called it a "complete and utter vindication" of Ireland.

Ireland had been accused of trying to bribe McCord with more than $500,000 in campaign contributions in what prosecutors called part of a yearslong scheme to land lucrative contracts to invest taxpayer dollars. Prosecutors alleged Ireland funneled the cash for six years to McCord's campaigns through friends, family members and employees of his business.

But Ireland's lead attorney, Reid Weingarten, said Ireland never sought an exchange of official action for campaign contributions and hid the contributions to a Democrat, McCord, to avoid the ire of fellow Republicans.

Weingarten said the tapes McCord made involved "a sort of awkward fencing" with Ireland, but nothing remotely sufficient to show an illegal and clear exchange.

U.S. Attorney Bruce Brandler would not discuss the details of the case Monday, including McCord's testimony. But Brandler said prosecutors were disappointed with the results and felt they had had enough evidence in the recordings to show an explicit exchange.

Brandler called it a "righteous case that needed to be brought."

"Hopefully, despite the result, it serves a salutary purpose in terms of revealing the relationships that go on between public officials and campaign contributors relating to official acts that the public officials are engaging in with those campaign contributors," Brandler said.

Jones also lambasted the campaign finance system in Pennsylvania, which he said allow "unbridled and unlimited" contributions from people who want business from the state.

"The scenarios that repeatedly played out in this case, I am moved to say, are a product of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania's highly deficient campaign finance laws," Jones said.

In a key moment in the recorded conversations, McCord asked Ireland for $100,000 if he delivered another $175 million in pension fund and treasury investment contracts to Ireland. The money was couched as a campaign contribution to help McCord pay himself back some of the $2 million in personal money he had plunged into his failed gubernatorial campaign.

"Well, let's work on it," Ireland had responded. A few seconds later, he added, "You've been a great friend. I'm with you a hundred percent."

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