Ex-tavern owner says plea deal was unclear

Sean O’Neill Sr. told a federal judge Tuesday he would not have agreed to a 2009 plea deal sparing his wife from a tax fraud indictment had he known it would mean his permanent banishment from the United States.

O’Neill, an Irish national, was sentenced in October 2009 under the five-count agreement, which included charges of tax fraud, falsely claiming U.S. citizenship and illegally possessing a firearm muzzle suppressor without a serial number.

He is currently serving an 18-month sentence in a federal penitentiary. Under the agreement, he would be placed into the custody of the Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement to begin deportation proceedings at the end of his incarceration.

But O’Neill said Tuesday he thought the agreement would allow him to voluntarily leave the country in exchange for a reduced sentence or no jail time. He added that he was not aware he was pleading to two aggravated felonies, both deportable crimes, and did not have an order of removal explained to him before he signed it.

O’Neill is now looking to vacate the sentence, citing ineffective counsel from defense attorney Michael Schwartz.

O’Neill said Schwartz had pressured him to “fall on the sword” and agree to the deal, or the government would pursue charges of tax fraud against O’Neill’s wife, Eileen.

But Schwartz had testified last week that part of the defense strategy was to use O’Neill’s deportation to get a reduction in his sentence.

Another member of O’Neill’s former defense team, Vincent DiFabio, said he told the O’Neills the charges of false claim of citizenship and owning a silencer were significant problems for O’Neill remaining in the country.

The O’Neill family was in turmoil during the time these discussions took place.

Their son, Sean O’Neill Jr., had fatally shot and killed his friend, Scott Sheridan, during an underage drinking party at the O’Neill home on Pony Trail Lane and was sent to a state forestry detention camp.

Their daughter, Roisin, was facing sentencing for a September 2008 drunk-driving crash that resulted in the death of 63-year-old Patricia Waggoner of Massachusetts, and Eileen O’Neill had just been diagnosed with melanoma.

Schwartz testified that several days before entering into the plea, he had advised the O’Neills that he had been notified by federal prosecutor Nancy Beam Winter the government was moving forward with a tax evasion case against the O’Neills.

The case involved cash payments to employees of Maggie O’Neill’s Irish Pub in Drexel Hill, owned at the time by the O’Neills.

DeFabio said Thursday a significant motivator for Sean O’Neill Sr. to plead guilty was sparing his wife an indictment in that case, which O’Neill echoed Tuesday.

“With all we had been through … the last thing I wanted to see was Eileen arrested for anything,” he said. “I didn’t feel I was guilty of anything, but I was still forced into the agreement.”

O’Neill said he was initially angered by the suggestion that he plead because he thought his defense team had put together a solid case. While he conceded he understood deportation was a possibility in any event, O’Neill said it had not been made clear to him that it would be guaranteed under his plea.

“Nobody said I would be banned for life,” he said. “I would have gone to trial and taken my chances there.”

Closing arguments will begin today at 1:30 p.m., after which U.S. District Judge William Yohn is expected to render a decision.

Staff writer Cindy Scharr contributed to this article.

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