Decision pending in Irish millionaire's bid to withdraw guilty plea

A federal judge said he would deliberate on two of three claims that a Chester County man facing deportation received ineffective legal representation.

U.S. District Judge William said it was "crystal clear" that Michael Schwartz, a former federal prosecutor, had no conflict of interest when he agreed to represent Sean O'Neill, 51, of Willistown Township, on tax, weapons and immigration charges. In fact, O'Neill hired Schwartz because of his federal experience, the judge said.

O'Neill pleaded guilty and was sentenced by Yohn in October 2009 to 18 months in prison. His new attorney, Cheryl A. Sturm, is now arguing that the plea was coerced and that Schwartz did not tell O'Neill that he risked permanent deportation.

Sturm argued that O'Neill's "will was being overcome" when Schwartz told him that he could prevent his wife's indictment on tax charges by pleading guilty, courtesy of a government agreementl. The charges stemmed from the operation of Maggie O'Neill's, a Delaware County pub the couple used to own.

The judge countered that all defendants are under coercion. He suggested that the issue was whether the pressure was a product of ineffectiveness of counsel or whether it was simply an attorney's explanation of "the unpleasant realities for him and his wife." Describing O'Neill, the judge said: "This is not a shy guy ... neither is his wife."

Yohn questioned Sturm's insistance that Schwartz had a duty to tell O'Neill that he would likely never again see his family on U.S. soil and would lose the $13 million in assets he has here. The judge said he thought Schwartz more than fulfilled his duty to tell O'Neill he risked deportation by recommending that he consult with an immigration attorney. Plus, Schwartz argued for a lighter sentence for O'Neill by emphasizing the hardship O'Neill's "banishment" would create for him and his family, suggesting O'Neill understood the consequences of his plea.

Despite the judge's frequent sparring with Sturm, he said he would review the testimony and issue a decision "in due course," either in writing or in court. If the judge decides to render his ruling from the bench, he said it would likely be the week of Aug. 8. 

In the meantime, O'Neill will be held at the federal Detention Center in Philadelphia. An immigration judge has already signed his deportation order. Assistant U.S. Attorney Nancy Beam Winter said the statute of limitations has expired on some of the tax charges that Eileen O'Neill faced; however, the government still has about two months to pursue charges from 2006.

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