The corruption case you barely heard of
BY TIM NOVAK AND CHRIS FUSCO Staff Reporters
David Johnson (inset), a former Jesse White Tumbler, displays his skills in 1992. He went on to become a city building inspector and was caught taking bribes.
Updated: November 29, 2010 10:23PM
It began with the arrest of a former member of the Jesse White Tumbling Team and turned into one of the most significant Chicago corruption investigations of Mayor Daley's administration.
The federal investigation dubbed "Operation Crooked Code" so far has led to the convictions of 21 people -- including 15 city building and zoning inspectors. The 21st conviction came just last Thursday, when a federal jury convicted developer Dumitru Curescu of bribery.
Despite those successful cases, Crooked Code hasn't been as high-profile as investigations of the city's Hired Truck Program or city hiring or the Operation Silver Shovel probe, largely because it involves corruption on a smaller scale -- rank-and-file city workers taking bribes to overlook building-code violations on neighborhood housing projects.
Still, the joint investigation by the city of Chicago inspector general's office and federal authorities has changed the way City Hall does business:
*The city now randomly assigns inspectors to job sites, hoping to keep them from developing personal relationships with contractors.
*And once a construction project begins, City Hall tries to ensure that different inspectors examine different phases of the work.
"The old system was a breeding ground for improper relationships," says Juliet Sorensen, a former assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted most of the 21 people convicted.
Six of the 15 crooked inspectors apparently used connections to get their city jobs, according to a hiring "clout list" that was kept by Mayor Daley's former patronage director, Robert Sorich, who, in an outgrowth of the Hired Truck investigation, was convicted in June 2006 of overseeing an illegal-hiring system that gave city jobs and promotions to politically connected people.
"The fact there were names on that list who then went on to take bribes strengthens the argument that these positions should be filled on merit," says Sorensen, now a Northwestern University law professor.
Crooked Code began in December 2006, when the Chicago Police Department arrested David W. Johnson, a building inspector who had landed his city job with help from Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, according to the Sorich clout list. The city hired Johnson in October 1994. That was the year Johnson ended his 20-year run as a member of -- and coach for -- the Jesse White Tumbling Team, founded by the secretary of state.
White "was highly disappointed'' with Johnson's arrest, says secretary of state's spokesman Dave Druker.
Johnson cooperated with authorities, wore a hidden wire and helped entangle other building department employees and contractors in the investigation. He pleaded guilty in July 2007, admitting he accepted and passed more than $50,000 in bribes from developers, including Sorin Adrian Oros of Glenview, who also was convicted.
"It was in 1998 that I began to accept money for helping people with problems they had with the building department," Johnson, who couldn't be reached for comment, said in a letter to the federal judge who sentenced him to 18 months in prison. Johnson has since been released.
"It began with people I knew, usually friends from my years in construction, or their friends, coming and asking me for what seemed like little favors.
"At first, I looked upon it as sort-of a gift or thank you . . . . As the favors became more complicated . . . I began to go to other co-workers in the city and ask them for their help. Those co-workers, in turn, not only asked for money for themselves but made me feel that it was OK to accept and deliver money to them."
The other convicted city inspectors who were on the Sorich hiring list:
*Miguel Diaz, whose political sponsor was listed as Al Sanchez, the mayor's former streets and sanitation commissioner. Sanchez has been found guilty of rigging city jobs.
*Darryl A. Williams, whose sponsor was listed as former Ald. Ike Carothers (29th), who's now in prison for taking bribes.
*William Wellhausen, whose sponsor was listed as the 36th Ward Regular Democratic Organization.
*Eric C. Reyes and Thomas C. Ziroli, listed as having "union" sponsorship for their jobs.
Among those still awaiting trial in Operation Crooked Code: Dominick F. Owens, a city zoning inspector who also is on the Sorich list, shown as having been sponsored by the 41st Ward Regular Republican Organization.