ORANGE COUNTY, Fla.,None - Former mayoral candidate and Orange County Commissioner Mildred Fernandez smiled as she pleaded no contest on Wednesday, ending her corruption trial.
Pleading no contest means she will not continue her fight in court. While she didn't admit to any wrongdoing, Fernandez did blame the same conspiracy.
"In my specific case your honor, I have been used as the scapegoat. And the big picture, the way I see this, big changes will come and somebody has to sacrifice. And in this case, it is me," Fernandez told the judge on Wednesday.
- Statement: From State Attorney's Office on Fernandez
- Slideshow: Fernandez walking out of court
- Raw Video: Ex-Commissioner after corruption trial
Fernandez was accused of taking illegal campaign contributions. A judge refused her request to throw out the charges, and sent the case to trial.
Fernandez's trial barely made it through jury selection. The plea deal came right before the jury was sworn in.
Fernandez pleaded no contest to eight charges, including two felonies and six misdemeanors. The most serious charge was "receipt of unlawful compensation."
Prosecutors agreed to drop the most serious racketeering and bribery charges in exchange for the plea.
Fernandez's voice cracked as she defended herself after telling the judge of her plea.
Prosecutors said that according to guidelines, Fernandez could spend up to two years in prison and they see no legal reason for the judge to go any lower than that.
Had Fernandez been convicted on all 15 counts, she could have faced a maximum sentence of 151 years in prison.
Fernandez's lawyer told WFTV that prison is still one of her biggest fears. Her lawyer said the plea she agreed to at the courthouse is an attempt to try to minimize her time behind bars as much as possible.
Her sentence is up to the judge.
Fernandez's lawyer Tony Suarez said the 66-year-old did not want to take a risk with a jury.
"Her life was passing in front of her," Suarez said.
One of her former constituents in District 3, Mary Mejias, called it a shame.
"It's a learning experience for everybody else, especially the politicians that think they can get away with a lot of things," said Mejias.
Fernandez could have become the first Puerto Rican mayor of a major U.S. city, but come January 20, when she's sentenced, she could become just another female inmate at a state prison.
WFTV checked other corruption cases around the state and found that prison time has been handed out to other commissioners.
There were five in Palm Beach County, and another seven city and county officials were arrested for corruption this year.
A former Hillsborough County commissioner is on trial right for accepting bribes, and three Broward County officials were also recently convicted on corruption charges and sentenced to prison.
WFTV wanted to know whether Fernandez could travel for the holidays or if she has to stay in Orange County. Jail officials said the judge who issued her original $5,300 bond added no special restrictions and she's still under that bond order.
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