Corruption Watch

Corruption Watch

Headlines in June show why Chicago is considered one of the most corrupt cities in the world.

When the Guardian highlighted some of the most corrupt cities in the world in June, it came as no surprise that Chicago made the list.

The city is notorious for insider deals and political favors. June saw many cases of insider deals and favoritism, including:

  • Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios gave his daughter, Vanessa Berrios, who works in his office, a promotion and 31 percent pay increase. This isn’t the first instance of Joe giving taxpayer funded insider deals to members of his family. Berrios’ son, Joey Berrios, also works in the assessor’s office. And his other daughter, Toni Berrios, works along side him as a lobbyist.
  • A high-ranking member of the Chicago Fire Department is under investigation for receiving favored treatment after he crashed a city-owned SUV while under the influence of alcohol. He has not been charged with a DUI, even though he was reportedly intoxicated. Taxpayers will presumably pick up the cost of the wreckage.
  • The Bellewood School District board diverted $105,000 from an education fund into Superintendent Rosemary Hendricks’ pension account. Hendricks is required to repay the district for the money put into her pension account, but there is no evidence yet of a repayment plan. She was previously ousted twice from her position of superintendent, but was hired back for a third term.

Taxpayers are always the losers when corruption, mismanagement and backdoor deals go unchecked. Here are some other stories of corruption:

June 1, 2016 – United States Department of Justice: Former Winnebago County Purchasing Director Sally Claassen Pleads Guilty to Federal Charges of Stealing over $400,000

The former Winnebago County Purchasing Director pleaded guilty today before U.S. District Judge Frederick J. Kapala to two counts of theft from a program receiving federal funds. SALLY A. CLAASSEN, 57, of Roscoe, Ill., was an employee of Winnebago County from March 3, 1997, until she resigned on Sept. 11, 2015. Claassen’s job title prior to her resignation was Purchasing Director.

According to the written plea agreement, as Purchasing Director for Winnebago County, Claassen was responsible for receiving and reviewing invoices submitted by vendors and submitting payment to vendors. As stated in the plea agreement, from Feb. 25, 2014 through April 27, 2015, Claassen used her position as the approver for payments from Winnebago County to vendors to steal approximately $368,137 from the County. Claassen admitted that she accomplished this theft by asking two Winnebago County vendors to submit false invoices to Winnebago County for work that was not performed, which Claassen then paid with County funds. Claassen then directed the two vendors to provide her with checks made out to “Cash” or to “JP Morgan Chase” for the full amounts that the vendors were paid. As Claassen further admitted, she told the two vendors that she needed them to submit the false invoices and then provide her with the checks for the full amount of the payments to help her allocate Winnebago County money to a project being funded by a charitable organization. In reality, Claassen stole the money by depositing the checks into her personal bank accounts. One of the vendors provided Claassen with 5 checks that totaled $45,000. The other vendor provided Claassen with 7 checks that totaled $323,137. No money given to Claassen by either vendor was ever used for the purpose for which she told the vendors that it was to be used.

June 2, 2016 – Daily Herald: Democrat wants Illinois’ top auditor to step aside during federal probe

A suburban Democrat has asked Illinois’ top auditor to take a leave of absence following his acknowledgment that federal investigators have questioned him about campaign expenses.

With a letter sent Wednesday, state Sen. Laura Murphy of Des Plaines becomes the highest-profile Democratic official to take Illinois Auditor General Frank Mautino to task for campaign expenses that have drawn increased scrutiny in recent months.

Among the expenses is more than $200,000 in about a dozen years at a single service station in his former legislative district.

“I believe a leave of absence would be in the best interest of state government and the taxpayers of Illinois,” Murphy writes in a letter. “Once the probe is complete and only after the cloud over your office has lifted would it be appropriate for you to return to work as auditor general.”

A Mautino spokesman declined to comment but has said in the past the Spring Valley Democrat is working to provide more thorough answers.

June 6, 2016 – St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Former Bethalto official indicted, arrested

Richard Mersinger, former village fire chief and zoning administrator, was arrested Monday on charges that he improperly filed housing inspections and received family health benefits for his former wife.

Bethalto police said they arrested Mersigner, 39, on indictments issued last week by the Madison County grand jury. He was charged with four counts of official misconduct and one of health-care fraud.

Mersinger resigned October as the police began investigating discrepancies in occupancy-permit inspections, the department said in a statement. It said officers found 140 suspected fraudulent inspections, including four for addresses that don’t exist.

June 10, 2016 – Chicago Tribune: City reaches tentative settlement in 2013 fatal police shooting

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration has tentatively settled a federal wrongful death lawsuit in the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white Chicago police officer in 2013 that was caught on surveillance video.

The potential settlement — which still would need to be approved by the City Council — comes less than two weeks before the lawsuit filed by the family of Cedrick Chatman was scheduled to go to trial.

Brian Coffman, the lawyer representing Chatman’s family, said he could not disclose the proposed settlement amount because the deal was not finalized.

A spokesman for the city’s Law Department had no comment.

Records shed light on investigators’ clash over police shooting of Cedrick Chatman

The tentative agreement marked the latest case of alleged police misconduct that the city has settled shortly before trial. Last month, a whistleblower suit brought by two Chicago police officers alleging they were blackballed by the department for going to the FBI about misconduct was settled for $2 million on the day that jury selection was to begin.

June 20, 2016 – WTTW Chicago Tonight: Whistleblower Cop On Ending Police “Code of Silence”

Two Chicago police officers charged in a federal lawsuit against the city said they faced threats of violence and warnings their colleagues wouldn’t back them up after it was revealed they’d worked undercover on a police corruption case. Shannon Spalding and Daniel Echeverria settled with the city for $2 million in late May on the day their case was set to head to trial.

Spalding and Echeverria worked undercover with the FBI investigating public housing officers charged with shaking down drug dealers and planting evidence. The investigation’s main target, former police Sgt. Ronald Watts, was charged along with a subordinate in 2012 and sentenced to prison. The two officers’ suit said they faced retaliation after their undercover work was revealed. …

… The settlement kept Mayor Rahm Emanuel from testifying in open court on the code of silence. In a speech to the City Council after the Laquan McDonald shooting video was released last year, Emanuel admitted the existence of a code of silence, which politicians and police have long denied.

June 21, 2016 – Chicago Sun-Times: Former UNO boss Juan Rangel broke securities law, SEC says

Juan Rangel — the former $275,000-a-year leader of the United Neighborhood Organization and its charter-school network — will pay a $10,000 fine to settle civil securities fraud charges without admitting wrongdoing, the federal Securities and Exchange Commission said Tuesday.

As the head of UNO and its taxpayer-funded charter schools, Rangel became perhaps the most powerful Latino political player in Chicago. He served as co-chairman of Rahm Emanuel’s 2011 mayoral campaign and had ties to other powerful politicians including Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, former Mayor Richard M. Daley and Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th.)

But UNO came under federal scrutiny and Rangel resigned in 2013 after the Chicago Sun-Times reported that the Hispanic community group and charter-management organization had paid millions of dollars out of a Madigan-backed state grant to companies owned by two brothers of a high-ranking UNO executive, Miguel d’Escoto.

The SEC said Tuesday that Rangel broke the law when he approved and signed documents related to an UNO bond sale in 2011 because those documents for potential bond buyers didn’t disclose the “conflicted transactions” revealed by the Sun-Times.

June 22, 2016: Chicago Sun-Times: Editorial: If only Juan Rangel would learn to play by the rules

The tragedy of Juan Rangel, who built up a system of charter schools in Chicago serving thousands of lower-income Hispanic kids, is that he has failed to hold himself to the highest ethical standards.

Rangel is a man of smarts and personal charm. He has done good work. He was destined, we once thought, to do so much more.

And maybe, for all we know, he will yet.

But somewhere along the line — or was it from the start? — Rangel fell in love with the old Chicago way of doing things, steering contracts and favoring friends and relatives for jobs. Whatever good he was doing, he threw mud all over it.

Rangel, former leader of the United Neighborhood Organization, on Tuesday agreed to pay a $10,000 fine without admitting any wrongdoing to settle securities fraud charges. In announcing the settlement, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission said Rangel broke the law in 2011 when he OKd a document related to an UNO bond sale that didn’t disclose “conflicted transactions.” The conflicts, uncovered by the Sun-Times, were that UNO paid millions of dollars from a state grant to companies owned by brothers of a top UNO executive

June 22, 2016 – The Chicago Reporter: Chicago does little to control police misconduct – or its costs

The stories behind Chicago’s police settlements often begin in ordinary moments. Riding a bike. Attending a barbecue. Watching TV.

They often end in extraordinary circumstances, according to the lawsuits. An 11-year-old with a gun placed at her temple. A grandmother arrested for battery to a police officer. A young man shocked unconscious by a Taser.

Most of these cases conclude as they occurred – outside of the public glare. People know about the high-profile police shootings of civilians and the multimillion-dollar settlements that result. But most cases are lesser known and settle for far less. Half of all cases paid out $36,000 or less, but they also contribute to a mounting taxpayer bill that goes largely unchecked by the mayor or City Council.

The City of Chicago spent more than $210 million for police misconduct lawsuits from 2012 to 2015, according to a Chicago Reporter analysis. It spent almost $53 million more on outside attorneys to litigate the cases. The Police Department exceeded its annual budget for lawsuits by almost $50 million, on average, in each of those years.

Yet, unlike some other major cities, Chicago doesn’t analyze the lawsuits for trends, identify the officers most frequently sued, or determine ways to reduce both the cost of the cases and officer misconduct.

Rather than rein in the practices that lead to these settlements, officials have borrowed millions to pay for police lawsuits, adding to the city’s crippling debt. Over time, the interest on the bonds will more than double the cost for police misconduct.

June 26, 2016 – Chicago Sun-Times: Mihalopoulos: Ask not what Berrios clan can do for your county…

Times are tough for many in the workforce today, even government employees.

Not so much for the public servants who are family members of Cook County Assessor and Democratic boss Joe “JFK” Berrios.

The assessor’s office gave a promotion — and a 31 percent pay raise — to daughter Vanessa Berrios last month, according to county records.

As manager of industrial/commercial valuations, Vanessa Berrios was making a little more than $80,000 a year. Her annual salary increased to $105,000, when she was promoted to director of industrial/commercial valuations on May 15.

The promotion from manager to director, and the resulting $25,000 salary bump, came not so long after Joe Berrios had loaned Vanessa Berrios $215,000 for a house she got from her sister, Maria Antonia “Toni” Berrios.

June 27, 2016 – Chicago Tribune: Bellwood district pays $105,000 to refill superintendent’s pension account

Money may be tight in Bellwood School District 88, but the school board still managed to quietly divert more than $105,000 from an education fund to replenish a retirement account its superintendent drained years ago.

The money added 20 years of service to the Illinois Teachers Retirement System account for Superintendent Rosemary Hendricks. That change, under a TRS formula, would increase annual pension benefits to $77,000 from an estimated $14,000. Taxpayers across the state will pick up the tab, potentially for years to come.

The move is another example of an Illinois school board diverting funds to help administrators land more lucrative retirement packages. The Tribune has written extensively about salary spikes, penalty payments and sweetheart deals that compound the state’s pension obligations.

District 88’s attorney said Hendricks, 66, is required to repay the $105,504 to the district, but the district has not provided a copy of that agreement or any details about a repayment plan or said whether she must pay interest.

June 28, 2016 – Chicago Sun-Times: CPD investigating whether Fire Dept. honcho got favored treatment

The Chicago Police Department’s Internal Affairs Division is investigating whether the third-highest ranking member of the Chicago Fire Department received favored treatment after crashing his city-owned SUV near Lake Shore Drive in Lincoln Park.

Sally Daly, a spokeswoman for the Cook County state’s attorney’s office, disclosed the existence of an Internal Affairs investigation after revealing that former Deputy Fire Commissioner John McNicholas would not be charged with DUI — even though he had a blood-alcohol level nearly twice the legal limit nearly four hours after the April 20 crash.

The Breathalyzer was administered by the Chicago Fire Department’s Internal Affairs Bureau. Chicago Police officers were on the scene of the crash on LaSalle Street just off Lake Shore Drive for about two hours but never administered a field sobriety test.

Unlike Illinois State Police, Chicago Police officers do not carry Breathalyzers in their squad cars. If a Breathalyzer is administered, it has to be done at the district station. That was not done in McNicholas’ case.

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