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Former Ald. Ambrosio Medrano set free on bond

Former Cook County Commissioner Joseph Mario Moreno who was sentenced 11 years prisfor participating bribery scheme leaving federal court 2012.

Former Cook County Commissioner Joseph Mario Moreno, who was sentenced to 11 years in prison for participating in a bribery scheme, leaving federal court in 2012. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: August 5, 2012 6:43AM

The focus in federal court Tuesday was again on convicted former Ald. Ambrosio Medrano as he was set free on bond after his latest alleged foray into the world of bribery.

But make no mistake, the bigger fish in last week’s political corruption bust involving Medrano was the guy who federal authorities say was his partner in crime — former Cook County Commissioner Joseph Mario Moreno.

Since serving a 30-month prison sentence for his 1996 conviction in the federal Operation Silver Shovel probe, Medrano has been little more than a grifter working the edges of Chicago politics while failing in his various bids to return to power.

In court Tuesday, Medrano had to rely on his 99-year-old mother-in-law to put up her home as collateral to secure his release from federal custody.

His lawyers said afterward that Medrano has been “barely making a living” in recent years as an entertainment promoter who specialized in concerts and other programs for the Latino community.

In contrast, Moreno is the longtime dapper dandy of the county board, a smooth-talking lawyer in expensive suits with a million-dollar home and a finger in lots of pies.

While not well-known to the general public (don’t confuse him with 1st Ward Ald. Joe “Proco” Moreno, no relation), Moreno is a mainstay of Cook County Democratic politics with many influential allies, especially on the Southwest Side and in the nearby suburbs that were part of his old district.

It’s Moreno who sources say has been cooperating with federal authorities for months before last week’s arrests — after he got tagged by an undercover mole himself — and also the one who could take this investigation into more fruitful territory.

As a measure of his economic station, Moreno was actually the Commodore of the Diversey Yacht Club just a few years back, which would make for a good nickname if somebody could just help me dig up that old photo of him in costume.

Moreno and his wife paid $1.5 million for a home in University Village in 2007, the Chicago Sun-Times previously reported. At the time, he also owned a $600,000 town house in the same development.

I’m pretty sure every investigative reporter in Chicago started a file on The Commodore at some point or other after he came on the scene in 1994 with a reputation as a sharpie looking to follow in the footsteps of Ald. Edward R. Vrdolyak. While Moreno always maintained that his income came almost exclusively from DUI defense work, the suspicion was always that the truth was closer to the conduct captured on secret government recordings ­— of a guy working all the angles.

To his credit, though, none of us ever laid a serious glove on Moreno, whose eventual 2010 election defeat had more to do with his support for then-County Board President Todd Stroger and the unpopular sales tax increase than with any ethical breaches.

During that campaign, I reported how Moreno had skirted county campaign contribution limits by allowing an allied group, the Mexican American Political Action Committee, to host a fund-raiser in his honor and using his mailing list of contributors.

That fund-raiser resulted in a notable $25,000 contribution to MAPAC from Sav-Rx Inc., a Nebraska-based company with a contract to supply mail order prescription drugs to Cook County’s health-care system.

Sav-Rx’s minority contractor for the county business was Chicago Medical Equipment and Supply, a company owned by Moreno’s good friend, Ronald Garcia.

More than a year earlier, the Sun-Times reported federal authorities had opened an investigation into a separate deal in which Moreno aggressively pushed for a county hospital contractor to use Garcia’s company.

That became all the more interesting last week when federal prosecutors charged Sav-Rx owner James Barta with teaming with Medrano, then working as an aide to Moreno, to pay a bribe in an effort to obtain business from an unnamed out-of-state hospital.

Undercover recordings made in this case are full of references to Moreno having received kickbacks from the unnamed subcontractor on the Sav-Rx deal with Cook County, although he has denied it.

It was even suggested that’s how The Commodore was able to buy his yacht.

Stung perhaps by Moreno’s inside track on favored treatment from prosecutors, Medrano lawyer Gal Pissetzky said his client had been following Moreno’s orders.

“The orders came from his boss,” Pissetzky said.

That would be The Commodore.

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