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Aide to ex-state Sen. Hendon, 6 others charged in bribery scheme

Elliott Kozel left Mary Smith hide their faces while exiting Dirksen Federal Building 219 S. Dearborn St. Tuesday July 17

Elliott Kozel, left, and Mary Smith hide their faces while exiting the Dirksen Federal Building, 219 S. Dearborn St., Tuesday, July 17, 2012, in Chicago. Kozel and Smith, employees of the Cook County Department of Corrections, are two of seven defendants arrested for a bribery scheme. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

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Updated: August 19, 2012 6:23AM

A onetime campaign treasurer and three others with ties to former State Sen. Rickey Hendon’s campaign fund were charged Tuesday with paying kickbacks in exchange for getting state grants in an ongoing probe into how taxpayer money is being doled out in Springfield.

Two Cook County Sheriff’s Department corrections officers also were among seven people charged Tuesday in a bribery conspiracy that involved an undercover FBI investigation in which the defendants believed the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services was handing out $25,000 grants “like candy” in exchange for kicking back $5,000 to a fictitious HHS official. Dean Nichols, the former Hendon treasurer, allegedly recruited three others to help submit applications for the grants in return for kickbacks.

The charges outline a scheme that allegedly involved passing bribes under the table — literally — in cash-stuffed envelopes.

“It feels like a drug deal, man,” Cook County Corrections Officer Elliott Kozel was on tape and video saying as a cooperator is allegedly counting out the $5,000 Kozel passed him as a bribe. Hendon was not charged but the 42-page criminal complaint unsealed in federal court makes repeated reference simply to “State Senator” who sources with knowledge of the probe identified as Hendon.

Hendon, a West Side Democrat who was widely known to be under federal scrutiny for years because of questions raised about state grants, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

He abruptly resigned his position in the Statehouse last year.

Public records show that one of the men charged, Dean Nichols, worked as his campaign treasurer.

Three others who were charged — Anthony Johnson, Reggi Hopkins and Regina Hollie — were paid by Hendon’s campaign fund to do political work as recently as November 2010, state records show. Kozel and Mary Smith, a Cook County Corrections supervisor, were arrested and charged with submitting corrupt loan applications. Nichols and Hopkins also were arrested. Kozel, Smith, Nichols and Hopkins were released on their own recognizance. The three others charged were to appear in court Wednesday.

The complaint says the cooperating witness is a Chicago Police officer who started cooperating with the government in July 2008 in an investigation of public corruption and gun-trafficking in the Chicago area. The charges make clear that federal law enforcement is attempting to lift the veil on the way taxpayer money is passed out in Springfield.

Charges detail a system in which tens of thousands of dollars in state grants could easily be directed to cronies and relatives, with seemingly little oversight or back checks to see who is actually receiving money at a time when Illinois has reached a fiscal budget crisis. The charges say that in 2007, Hopkins received a $190,000 grant that Hendon earmarked allegedly with the understanding that Hopkins would “provide a portion of the proceeds to [Hendon’s] nephew.” State records show that money went to an organization called MIW Foundation. Hopkins told the cooperator in a conversation that was caught on tape that what he had “been doing is donating 15 percent of what I make off of grants, back to [Hendon’s] campaign . . . I just do it as a donation.”

Hopkins and Nichols each were donors to Hendon, with Nichols ­— described in state campaign records as an accountant — giving the former West Side Democrat $4,500 in contributions and loans.

A call placed to MIW Foundation’s offices was answered late Tuesday afternoon by a man identifying himself simply as an engineer, who was unaware of the indictments or who was in charge of the recording studio he and others had booked time to use.

Hopkins did not answer his cellphone when contacted by the Chicago Sun-Times.

Hendon left the state Senate abruptly in February 2011, giving up a seat that he had held since 1993 and denying to reporters he left because of any “federal problems.” His departure followed a series of federal subpoenas to state agencies, inquiring about grants he had sponsored.

Shortly after he left, despite no clear-cut answers as to why he had pulled the plug on a political career that he seemingly loved, a stream of Democratic and Republican colleagues feted Hendon from the Senate floor, led by Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago), who described him as a “brilliant politician.”

Hendon has dropped out of the limelight, though he has kept an active hand in politics. Since the start of the year, five candidates paid him fees for political consulting that totaled $13,950. State Sen. Annazette Collins (D-Chicago), who lost her election bid in March, paid him the most for his services during that period: $6,000.

Contributing: Chris Fusco and Lisa Donovan

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