Feds: County inspector took bribes to warn merchants of inspections
BY JAMES SCALZITTI AND LISA DONOVAN Staff Reporters August 8, 2012 12:56PM
Updated: August 8, 2012 7:52PM
A Cook County revenue investigator tasked with going from store to store to make sure merchants are paying tobacco taxes has been arrested and charged in an on-the-job bribery scheme, the FBI announced Wednesday.
Robert Mitchell, 39, of the 2400 block of West Flournoy in Chicago, was arrested Tuesday night and charged with attempted extortion in a criminal complaint filed Monday in U.S. District Court and unsealed after his arrest. The $69,000-a-year investigator started with the revenue department in 2008, authorities said, but county payroll records show he was first hired to work at the county in 1998.
In November 2011, a store manager told federal authorities Mitchell offered to warn of upcoming inspections in exchange for cash, the FBI alleged in a statement released Wednesday. The unidentified witness manages a convenience store that sells cigarettes and other tobacco products, and knows the owners of several similar stores.
Authorities allege Mitchell made a deal to accept monthly $600 payments to provide information about inspections at the witness’ store and those owned by the merchant’s pals.
Mitchell allegedly directed the witness to buy a pre-paid cell phone, and from December 2011 through July 2012, the witness made the monthly payments, using money provided by the FBI. Mitchell sent a series of texts indicating dates, times and locations of scheduled tobacco inspections, authorities said.
Mitchell appeared Wednesday morning in federal court in Chicago and was released on bond pending an Aug. 17 hearing.
If convicted, he faces up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.
Mitchell was hired in 1998 to work in the county budget office under then-County Board President John Stroger, county payroll records show.
He was later hired in 1998 by County Board President Todd Stroger — John Stroger’s son — to work in the contract compliance office before moving in to the revenue job, according to county records.
The county has suspended him, according to Liane Jackson, a spokeswoman for Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. Mitchell could not be reached for comment.
According to the timeline provided by federal authorities, the scheme began after Preckwinkle and Sheriff Tom Dart publicly announced in September 2011 that they were cracking down on tobacco tax cheats, including beefing up the county’s revenue department arm and bringing in officers to help with the probes.
At the time, investigators were looking to ensure merchants across the county were selling cigarettes with an official “stamp” — evidence the tax had been paid.
Facing a budget crunch and falling cigarette tax revenues, officials wanted to ensure stores were paying the county’s $2-a-pack tax. The county’s tobacco tax has since expanded: there’s a new 25-cent levy on big cigars, 5-cent tax on small cigars, and a 30-cent-an-ounce tax on loose tobacco or chew.