By Jared S. Hopkins
6:29 PM EDT, July 12, 2013
Wearing a three-piece beige suit, former Bear Chris Zorich stood before a federal judge Friday and apologized for not filing his federal income tax returns for four years.
He promised to never make that mistake again and said he looked forward to moving on in his life.
“I’m obviously very sorry about my actions,” he said. “I take full responsibility for them.”
He was brief and sounded nervous. But it seemed to be enough for U.S. Magistrate Judge Daniel Martin, who sentenced him to three years of probation.
Zorich, 44, pleaded guilty in March to misdemeanor charges and faced up to 16 months in prison.
His attorney, Matt Lydon of Winston & Strawn, had requested probation. He noted Zorich cooperated with federal authorities and is already being punished by paying thousands of dollars in back taxes and penalties to the federal government.
Last week, Lydon filed papers with the court explaining that Zorich is in such dire financial straits that his net worth is “substantially negative.”
Zorich did not file tax returns from 2006 through 2009, during which time he had a gross income of more than $1 million in deferred compensation from the Bears and other sources. He also received monthly rent payments from the charitable foundation he founded in the early 1990s, according to court records.
The Tribune reported in 2010 that the Chris Zorich Charitable Foundation was in disarray and that the last tax return it filed on time, in 2002, showed about $864,000 in assets.
That story prompted a review by the Illinois attorney general's office and eventually led to a consent decree in which he agreed to pay back about $350,000 in unaccounted charitable funds. Zorich has denied misusing any money, but the decree barred him from taking a leading role for any charity in Illinois.
He has paid $58,525 in back taxes to the federal government, but still owes likely $90,000, according to court records. Meanwhile, payments to the Illinois attorney general's office have been put on hold until December, records show.
In sentencing Zorich, Martin said Zorich has led an otherwise “exemplary” life and commended him for his charitable work, which included hand-delivering turkeys to those in need during the holidays.
“It was the real thing. It was impressive then and it remains impressive,” said Martin, a former public defender.
Zorich smiled in the courtroom as he shook hands with his legal team and friends. Later, wearing sunglasses, Zorich departed the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse with Lydon without speaking to reporters. He has not spoken publicly about the charitable problems since 2010.
He won accolades for his charity but continued to solicit and receive contributions after its registration was canceled, according to the decree.
Growing up on the South Side as an only child, he graduated from Chicago Vocational High School and became an all-America lineman at Notre Dame.
In 1993, two years after being drafted by the Bears, Zorich founded his charity to honor his mother. She raised him as a single mother on a $250-monthly paycheck and died in 1991. He found her body in her apartment, hours after he was named MVP in the Orange Bowl.
His attorney submitted to the court six letters of support, including one from Father Michael Pfleger at St. Sabina Academy on the South Side, where Zorich has been working in the athletic department.
“I don’t think he’s ever intentionally tried to steal or tried to avoid taxes. That’s not the Chris Zorich I know,” Pfleger told the Tribune earlier this week. “I’ve always been impressed with his integrity and honesty.”
Zorich had friends in the courtroom, including Notre Dame teammate Tim Ryan, who also submitted a support letter.
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