City inspectors charged with corruption

May 22, 2008 8:54:07 PM PDT
In another crackdown on corruption at Chicago's City Hall, 15 people have been arrested in connection with a federal investigation targeting the Building and Zoning Department.Among the suspects are seven city workers, including some inspectors.

This latest corruption crackdown is called Operation Crooked Code. Those arrested are accused of accepting cash bribes for building and zoning favors.

The U.S. Attorney for northern Illinois offered a stern rebuke to people who he said would betray the public trust and use their positions in the city's building department to speed paperwork or issue bogus approvals of construction work -- all for cash or gifts -- especially after six people were charged last year in Operation Crooked Code.

"It is clear that people casually pay and take bribes in the permitting process and the second thing that is clear is that last year's arrests did not make enough of an impact, instead of people thinking about bribes being illegal and immoral, people are just thinking about how to get away with it," said Patrick Fitzgerald, U.S. Attorney.

The eight criminal complaints against 15 defendants -- some of whom work in city offices -- allege a range of wrongdoing that in some cases endanger the public. For example, one building inspector allegedly accepted three $500 cash payments from a confidential informant in exchange for providing favorable but fraudulent zoning inspections of one property. Other inspectors were cited for overlooking plumbing and ventilation problems. Some were paid with tickets to sporting events.

"What they actually did with their jobs was to make absolutely sure the laws were violated everything was the exact opposite of the way things should be. The people who we the taxpayers were paying to protect us were actually using their jobs to make sure regular taxpayers got hurt and corrupt real estate developers benefitted," said David Hoffman, Chicago Inspector General.

The authorities said in real estate, time is money. So the motive to offer and accept bribes by developers appears irresistible, even if safety is compromised.

"He says the building had issues, including porch issues, although, quote, 'I forgot what they were because I didn't write any of them down, but just tell him he had a couple of issues and, you know, he got passed anyway,'" said Hoffman.

The indictment describes how a confidential witness was an "expediter" who shuttled cash and information back and forth between inspectors to contractors.

Through the information of a cooperating witness who wore wires during meetings, and wiretapped phone calls, authorities say some suspects complained that getting payoffs was getting harder in Chicago. Mayor Daley, who eliminated the department of permits and zoning to save money, expressed frustration.

"I wish I could get it right for once and for all and people, you wish you could. But again, people who take money from both the private and public sector are going to get caught," Daley said.

Feds say mployees like Phyllis Mendenhall, a city employee since 1979, expedited building department permits in exchange for $300. Authorities say a developer, Mario Olivella, paid a city plumbing inspector more than $11,000 to overlook plumbing violations. And the feds allege that William Wellhausen, a zoning investigator, pocketed $18,000 after tweaking inspection reports.

The defendants appeared in federal court Thursday - seven city workers, seven developers and builders and one architect.

On the developer side is Dumitru Curescu. He's accused of handing over nearly $20,000 in bribe money. He and his wife, who is also charged, wouldn't comment.

"I've been involved in the case a half hour, and I really have nothing to say," said Richard Kling, Curescu's attorney. "Once I know about the case, I'll be happy to talk to you."

Other defendants avoided the spotlight Thursday. Some covered their faces; architect Ronald Piekarz ran away. The feds say his bribes, in part, included tickets to sporting events.

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