Having not just one, but two well-connected lawyers on your side apparently doesn’t hurt.
While saying that “for once, I disagree with Mr. Graham,” Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Robert E. Cahill Jr. nevertheless sentenced William “Chris” McCollum to only six months in jail this afternoon after the political operative and ex-county employee was caught stealing $140,000 from two campaign committees.
State prosecutors had argued for five years of incarceration, with all but one year suspended, “given the long-term, systematic pattern of fraudulent acts and abuse of trust that McCollum engaged in while committing these crimes.”
Andrew Jay Graham and David Irwin, two of Baltimore’s top criminal attorneys who reportedly charge $1,000 an hour for their services, countered with the idea of no jail time, telling the judge that McCollum “is essentially a good man – loyal and generous” (Graham) who had made “criminally stupid decisions” (Irwin).
“Putting a man in a box [jail]” would serve no public purpose when “he’s really done all he can” after his crimes were uncovered, “cooperating with state prosecutors and trying to do something positive and constructive out of the mess we have here,” Graham argued at today’s sentencing hearing.
Deputy State Prosecutor Sarah R. David disagreed.
McCollum embezzled large sums of money “to finance a lifestyle above his means” from the campaign treasury of former Councilwoman Cathy Bevins (D, Middle River) and the Baltimore County Victory Slate of former county executive Jim Smith.
“This was not a crime of opportunity. This was a crime of complexity. This crime took work,” David said.
McCollum’s reign of pilferage began less than a year after he became treasurer of the two entities.
He pocketed checks, set up phony LLCs and diverted tens of thousands of campaign dollars to pay his personal American Express credit card expenses, then submitted false finance reports to the State Board of Elections.
Judge Cahill said he was “struck by the level of betrayal and lack of gratitude this crime shows” before he sentenced McCollum to six months in jail for felony theft, with a concurrent six-month sentence for perjury and three years of probation.
Pain and Anguish
Before sentencing took place, former Councilwoman Bevins spoke of the pain and anguish of having been hoodwinked by “my closest friend” and “my go-to person for all campaign matters.”
Bevins said she was devastated when prosecutors showed her how McCollum had engineered a myriad of schemes to hide and steal funds from her campaign committee.
“How could you do this to me, my donors, my friends?” Bevins asked in a hushed voice. “This level of deceit is sickening to me.”
Noting that she has struggled over the last 14 months with Stage 3 cancer, Bevins declared, “I want the court and Chris to know, I have forgiven you. I will never forget you, and you will never be my friend again.”
Graham and Irwin brought forth their own character witnesses – Thomas Albright, a farmer, and Jeffrey Budnitz, secretary of the Lake Roland Nature Council.
“Chris was wrong [in] what he did,” Albright proclaimed. But he said he saw another side of McCollum’s character during the Covid epidemic when he was director of the Baltimore County Ag Center.
“When Covid came along, I saw him unloading boxes of food and giving back. There’s a side of him that’s very positive.”
Budnitz gave similar testimony.
“I do not condone Chris’ actions,” he said, but “I saw a human being who worked tirelessly” on county park projects. “And I worked him like a dog.”
Works for Dockside Bar
In a character letter submitted to the court, Dave Carey, the owner of Tiki Lee’s Dock Bar near Sparrows Point who hired McCollum last year, said he has made “significant and invaluable” contributions to the company.
“It is my belief that everyone is entitled to a fair chance at redemption and personal growth,” Carey wrote.
Irwin told the judge that McCollum had many struggles, that his mother died when he was five and that he left the family farm in North Carolina when he was 18, coming to Baltimore with his “childhood sweetheart” when she got a job at a local hospital.
The couple eventually divorced, the family farm shrank and his father endured severe health problems before dying, all of which placed “pressure” on the 52-year-old, leading to what Irwin at one point called a “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” personality.
McCollum was ordered to return to court on September 18 to begin his time in the county detention center.
More on McCollum
And his interlocking connections to county politics: