CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Former West Virginia Senate President Dan Tonkovich reversed himself Thursday and pleaded guilty to extorting $5,000 from a group that sought his support of casino gambling legislation in 1986.
The proceeding was delayed when the judge said he was not sure that Tonkovich was guilty and gave him time to reconsider. Tonkovich still maintained he was guilty of extortion.
Tonkovich's guilty plea to one count of a six-count indictment came after a federal jury heard five days of testimony during his extortion and racketeering trial. U.S. Attorney Michael Carey said prosecutors planned to dismiss the remaining charges.
'Your honor, I'd like to change my plea from not guilty to guilty,' Tonkovich told U.S. District Judge John Copenhaver.
The Marshall County Democrat signed a plea agreement Wednesday night with federal prosecutors in which he admitted extorting $5,000 from WVVC Inc. in February 1986. The Weirton group had been pushing a bill that would have legalized casino gambling in West Virginia but the bill did not pass.
Copenhaver delayed accepting Tonkovich's plea for several minutes Thursday, saying he was not convinced the former lawmaker was guilty of the extortion charge.
Throughout the trial, the defense had maintained that Tonkovich, 43, believed WVCC paid him the money for marketing work he was hired to perform.
'If that is the case, you are not guilty and we'll go ahead with this trial,' Copenhaver told Tonkovich.
Copenhaver recessed the proceedings for 10 minutes to allow Tonkovich to confer with his lawyer, James Lees. Following the recess, Tonkovich said he believed WVCC paid him the money to gain influence over him and that he was guilty of extortion.
Tonkovich's wife, Nancy, cried as her husband entered his plea, and Tonkovich had tears in his eyes as U.S. marshals escorted him to their office for processing.
Copenhaver scheduled sentencing for Nov. 16. Tonkovich faces up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. He was allowed to remain free on a $5,000 unsecured bond posted earlier.
The judge also ordered Tonkovich to pay $4,800 in jury costs associated with the five-day trial within 30 days.
Tonkovich, who made an unsuccessful run for governor in 1988, was the only one of three state senators embroiled in scandal this summer to contest the case against him.
Former Senate President Larry Tucker, D-Nicholas, who succeeded Tonkovich as head of the Senate this year, resigned last week after pleading guilty to extorting money from Tri-State Greyhound Park. Two weeks ago, former state Sen. John 'Si' Boettner, D-Kanawha, pleaded guilty to filing a false federal income tax return and resigned his seat.