CAPITOL RECAP: Full search warrant suggests broad corruption probe of Sen. Martin Sandoval

 

By Capitol News Illinois

SPRINGFIELD – Senate Democrats on Friday, Oct. 11, released copies of the full, unredacted search warrant that was executed on state Sen. Martin Sandoval’s office Sept. 24, and it reveals a wide-ranging probe into possible corruption involving a red-light camera company, construction businesses, a large utility company and other Chicago-area politicians.

Sandoval, D-Chicago, also resigned Friday from his post as chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, according to a spokesman for Senate President John Cullerton. But he still retains his leadership post as Senate Democratic whip, the person responsible for ensuring party discipline on key votes.

Federal agents raided Sandoval’s Statehouse office, his district office in Cicero and his home in Chicago on Sept. 24. In response to records requests from news media, Cullerton’s office released a heavily-redacted copy of the search warrant, along with a list of items that were seized.

It indicated investigators were looking for correspondence and documents related to several individuals and businesses, but most of those names were blacked out.

Sandoval has not been charged with any wrongdoing.

The unredacted material, however, adds significant detail, and indications of where the investigation might be headed.

The warrant indicates agents were looking for evidence of crimes under Article 18 of the United States Code, which deals with “deprivation of rights under color of law,” or crimes committed by public officials. It identifies specific statutes involving conspiracy, theft and bribery, fraud, wire fraud, and a statute, 18 U.S.C. 1951, “interference with commerce by threats or violence.”

The first set of materials listed in the search warrant identifies SafeSpeed LLC, a company that provides automated red-light cameras to several communities in the Chicago area. Along with SafeSpeed, the search warrant lists several individuals including Cook County Commissioner and McCook Mayor Jeff Tobolski; his chief of staff, Patrick Doherty; Berwyn Alderman Cesar Santoy, who was also on the Illinois Tollway Highway Authority Board until his temporary appointment was pulled Friday afternoon by Gov. J.B. Pritzker; a company named Technicraft Collision Repair; that company’s president, Sebastian Jachymiak; and a company identified as Arq Design Build.

Chicago-area news outlets have reported that Sandoval personally intervened on SafeSpeed’s behalf to get Illinois Department of Transportation approval for a red-light camera in Oakbrook Terrace that IDOT had previously denied, all while taking tens of thousands of dollars in campaign donations from the company and its owner.

That has prompted renewed calls to repeal state laws that allow municipalities to use red-light cameras to enforce traffic laws.

Another paragraph in the warrant identifies items related to Puentes Inc., an English-Spanish translation service company that Sandoval owns, and Monarca Inc., which, according to the Illlinois secretary of state’s website, is owned by Sandoval’s wife, Marina.

In a separate paragraph, the warrant authorizes a search for items related to public officials in the village of Summit, including Village President Sergio Rodriguez, Police Chief John Kosmowski, Department of Public Works Director Bill Mundy, road construction company owner Pedro Ramirez, and “Concrete Company A.”

The warrant goes on to identify items related to the utility company ComEd and its parent company Exelon, Chicago-area real estate developer Vahooman “Shadow” Mirkhaef, businessman Michael Vondra and several of his associates, a number of real estate companies and other businesses.

Finally, the warrant calls for items related to a number of IDOT employees and “Items related to any official action taken in exchange for a benefit.” Pritzker has said previously that no IDOT employees have been subpoenaed as part of the investigation.

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EDUCATION SURVEY: A new report from an independent policy and advocacy organization is calling for increased state investment in public education in Illinois, particularly in early childhood and higher education.

“Overall, our outcomes are improving despite insufficient state investment in programs and schools. We must build on the progress of K–12 funding reform and ensure our early childhood and postsecondary programs are fully and equitably funded so students and families have access to the resources they need to thrive,” Advance Illinois said in its 2019 “The State We’re In” report.

Advance Illinois was founded in 2008 by leaders from several civic, philanthropic, business and education organizations across the state. The group’s stated purpose is to work “toward a healthy public education system that prepares students to achieve success in college, career and civic life.”

Their annual report tracks roughly 80 metrics pertaining to student performance in three categories: early education, K–12 and postsecondary.

The report found that evidence-based funding formula, which was passed in 2017, has helped increase per-pupil state spending at the K-12 level. Illinois spent, on average, $7,503 per pupil in 2017, ranking it 29th in the nation. That’s up from $4,557 in 2007, when the state ranked 45th.

The evidence-based funding formula calls for an added $350 million in K-12 education spending annually and directs that money to the schools furthest from adequate funding. This helped decrease the number of school districts funded at less than 60 percent of their adequacy targets from 168 in 2017 to roughly 34 in 2019, according to the report.

Still, nearly half of Illinois’ 852 school districts are working with “less than 70 percent of the funds they need to adequately meet their students’ needs,” the report said.

While K-12 education spending increased from 2007 to 2017, over that same span, per-pupil state spending at four-year higher education institutions was decimated. In 2007, Illinois spent $7,276 per student at public four-year institutions, but that number fell to $3,636 in 2017. That was a steep enough fall to move the state from the 19th to 45th highest in the nation.

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FAMILY PLANNING FUNDS: Aunt Martha’s Health & Wellness, the only Illinois organization currently participating in the federal family planning program, was awarded more than double its initial grant after several providers across the country declined their funding in response to a Trump administration rule change.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services oversees the Title X program. It announced on Sept. 30 the allocation of an additional $33.6 million to 50 grantees in several states to buttress their family planning services.

The funding became available, the department said in press release, after 18 organizations “left the Title X program rather than comply with statutory and regulatory requirements prohibiting federal funding where abortion is a method of family planning.”

Raul Garza, Aunt Martha’s president and CEO, said the provider’s new grant amount is more than $1.3 million. That is an increase of $825,000.

Aunt Martha’s will use the money to expand services — including wellness exams, testing for sexually transmitted diseases and birth control — to several of its facilities, Garza said, allowing its medical personnel to treat “more than double the number of patients we’re able to serve now.”

“No else else (in Illinois) applied, so family planning services would not be available to thousands of women,” he said. “That’s not an exaggeration. That’s a fact.”

Garza added that health care providers previously offering Title X services through contracts with the Illinois Department of Public Health have “reached out” to Aunt Martha’s about working with them instead.

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STATE ETHICS: A Republican state lawmaker said Wednesday, Oct. 16, she plans to introduce legislation to establish a State Ethics Task Force to tighten ethics rules within Illinois government.

“To have the public’s trust, we must take action whenever confidence is broken,” Rep. Tony McCombie, R-Savanna, said in a news release. “We’ve seen the headlines of the FBI’s recent activity, including raiding the homes of legislators, lobbyists, and offices within the State Capitol. The cost of corruption is too high for Illinoisans to ignore.”

McCombie — who is chair of the House Republican Organization, the political arm of the caucus which works and raises money to elect House Republicans — said several events in the past year “raise concerns” that the state’s ethics rules are not strict enough. The first of which, she said, is the August indictment of state Sen. Tom Cullerton, D-Villa Park, on multiple counts of embezzlement from a labor union.

She also mentioned an ongoing and wide-ranging investigation centering on state Sen. Martin Sandoval, D-Chicago, whose Statehouse and district offices, as well as his home, were searched by federal agents in September.

She indicated that she hopes to have the legislation considered in the upcoming veto session, which begins Oct. 28.

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PRITZKER TAX RETURNS: Gov. J.B. Pritzker and his wife, M.K. Pritzker, reported more than $6 million in gross income last year, about $5.5 million of which was federally taxable, according to a nine-page summary of 2018 state and federal tax returns released by his campaign Tuesday, Oct. 15.

The governor’s campaign did not, however, release any tax return documentation regarding trust funds which benefit the Pritzkers. The only information about the trusts was contained in a single sentence in the email which distributed the summary of personal tax returns.

“According to the information provided by the trustees, in 2018, trusts benefitting J.B. Pritzker paid an additional $5.3 million in Illinois taxes at a rate of 6.45 percent and $29 million in federal taxes,” the campaign said in the email.

The tax return summaries also lacked supporting forms which would have offered more information on some of the total revenue and deduction streams.

The Pritzkers’ income appears to show about $2 million in taxable interest, $2.5 million in ordinary dividends, and $1.5 million in additional income, at least $1.3 million of which was listed in a line entitled “taxable refunds, credits, or offsets of state and local income taxes.”

Gross income listed on the forms is about $6.2 million. A sum of $1.8 million is subtracted from state taxable income on the forms, but the details of that subtraction are included in a supplemental Schedule M form which was not released Tuesday.

That makes the 4.95 percent state tax rate applicable to about $4.3 million of their income, according to the documents. That means the Pritzkers paid $215,885 in state income tax on their personal income not including trusts, the documents show.

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ELECTION SECURITY: Illinois made substantial progress in securing its election systems since Russian government officials hacked into its voter registration database in 2016, but more needs to be done to protect those systems heading into the 2020 elections.

That was the message two Illinois election officials, State Board of Elections Director Steve Sandvoss and Lake County Clerk Robin O’Connor, delivered to a congressional committee Tuesday, Oct. 15.

“Cybersecurity is an ongoing, ever-escalating process that doesn’t have an end date, and as such there will be an ongoing need for funds to maintain the program,” Sandvoss told the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee.

That panel had a special meeting — known as a “field hearing” — in the village of Gurnee, which is part of the state’s 14th congressional district in Lake County. That’s the home territory of the committee’s vice chair, Democratic U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood.

Earlier this year, the House Intelligence Committee reported Illinois was one of 21 states whose election systems were targeted by Russian government hackers in 2016. In the Prairie State, the hackers were able to penetrate the entire statewide voter registration database and, by the end of 2018, had accessed as many as 200,000 voter registration records, according to the report.

“Russian cyber actors were in a position to delete or change voter data, but the committee is not aware of any evidence that they did so,” the report stated.

In 2018, the State Board of Elections launched what it calls the “Cyber Navigator” program. With $13.2 million in federal grant funding distributed through the Help America Vote Act, the agency was able to upgrade its security systems and hire nine individuals — the “navigators” — to consult with local election officials throughout the state and help them address their own vulnerabilities.

But Elizabeth Howard of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program, said even the $600 million contained in the House plan wouldn’t be enough. She estimated the cost of securing the entire country’s election system at $2.2 billion.

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INSULIN PRICES: Lawmakers will aim to pass a law capping out-of-pocket insulin costs at $100 per one month’s supply when they return for the fall veto session, the bill’s sponsors announced Friday, Oct. 11, at a Chicago news conference.

“How much would you pay to keep yourself alive? How much would you pay to keep your children alive?” asked state Sen. Andy Manar, a Bunker Hill Democrat who is sponsoring Senate Bill 667, Amendment 1.

Manar said pharmaceutical companies, insurers and other industry insiders know the answer to that question, which is why the cost of certain brands of insulin jumped from $35 per vial in 2001 up to $289 per vial in 2018.

State Sen. Steve Stadelman, a Loves Park Democrat, said the issue was personal to his family as well — his teenage son has type 1 Diabetes and the sticker price for the drug is more than $1,400. He said his family has insurance with a reasonable deductible, but he is concerned about the future.

“I worry about my son when he is no longer covered under insurance. Will he face these similar challenges in the future?” he said.

The bill focuses on those who have insurance but are still paying high out-of-pocket costs for insulin. If it’s passed, those costs would be capped at $100 for a 30-day supply.

For those without insurance, Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker said, insulin is already covered on Medicaid.

The bill also calls on the Illinois attorney general to investigate insulin pricing, determine whether added consumer protections are needed and provide a report to the governor and state agencies by Nov. 1, 2020.

The Legislature returns for fall veto session on Oct. 28.

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DEATH PENALTY: A Republican lawmaker has filed legislation to reinstate the death penalty in Illinois, calling it an “effective tool” to dissuade violent crime.

Barrington Hills Rep. David McSweeney first announced his intention to introduce the bill in August, after mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, killed 31 people.

The Capital Crimes Litigation Act of 2019, filed Thursday, Oct. 10, would restore state death penalty law to what it was eight years ago, before former Gov. Pat Quinn signed a law eliminating the measure. Its purpose, according to the measure, is to “have the death penalty serve as a deterrent to violent crime with the specific goal of reducing mass shootings, serial killings, and gun violence.”

At the time Quinn abolished capital punishment in Illinois, making it the 16th state to do so, he said the state should not have a system in place that might result in the killing of wrongfully-convicted citizens. McSweeney said DNA technology has advanced “tremendously,” and added the state needs “to take special care” to ensure wrongful convictions are not carried out.

The bill includes language that, if successfully passed into law, indicates the General Assembly “has confidence in the ability of crime laboratory biochemical testing … to reduce or eliminate wrongful criminal convictions in Illinois.”

Democrats have supermajorities in the House and Senate, and there is no evidence the legislation has wide support in either chamber. McSweeney said it will “take time to build up” approval, but he plans to start a conversation to have his bill heard at the committee level. He said it is not something he plans to take up until regular session begins in January.

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5-YEAR ECONOMIC PLAN: Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity introduced a five-year economic plan last week, focusing on six industries that can boost the state’s economy and a variety of programs to build its workforce and encourage population growth.

It’s the first such plan since former Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn released his in July 2014, when he declared, “Illinois is in the midst of a resurgence.”

“Over the past five years, the state has battled back from the worst financial crisis in seven decades to put the economy on a positive trajectory,” Quinn said in his 2014 plan.

Pritzker had similar sentiments in this year’s plan. He touted his first seven months in office and emphasized the passage of a $45 billion capital infrastructure plan, legalized recreational marijuana and sports gambling, and the passage of several pro-business reforms.

The report, which serves as a loose guiding document rather than binding public policy, also listed challenges to overcome, including outmigration.

Other challenges noted in the plan include income inequality along the lines of race and sex, unresponsive bureaucracy, lagging commercialization of research and development, and indistinct industry strength.

It also mentions a “history of fiscal imbalances,” calling attention to a 736-day budget impasse under former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and claiming the budget passed this year was the first such effort that was “bipartisan and balanced” in years.

The plan also focuses on “winning in key industries,” including agribusiness and ag tech, energy, information technology, life sciences and health care, manufacturing, transportation and logistics, and small businesses.

Pritzker emphasized reforming government to “provide world-class customer service,” and “aggressively marketing” the state to its young people and those thinking of moving here.

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