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Convicted businesswoman: I hired 2 top Hispanic legislators as lobbyists

State Rep. Edward Acevedo (D-Chicago) (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

State Rep. Edward Acevedo (D-Chicago) (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

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Updated: October 27, 2012 6:14AM

Two top Hispanic legislators worked as paid consultants to a government contractor whose owner has been sentenced to 26 months in prison in a minority-contracting scheme.

State Sen. Tony Munoz and state Rep. Edward Acevedo, both Chicago Democrats, were hired to help find customers who would buy “glow-in-the-dark” paint from Azteca Supply Co., the defunct company’s owner Aurora Venegas said Tuesdayas she was sent to prison for defrauding the city of Chicago and the village of Orland Park on government contracts.

“I did hire them as contractors,” Venegas said. “Munoz was supposed to introduce me to contractors outside Illinois. And Acevedo, the same thing. Tony worked for me about three months. Eddie, probably a year.”

Venegas didn’t say how much she paid the two legislators, but acknowledged they didn’t bring her any customers for the photoluminescent paint.

Acevedo and Munoz couldn’t be reached for comment. They are assistant majority leaders in the Illinois Legislature.

Three months ago, the Chicago Sun-Times obtained recently-unsealed court documents revealing that Acevedo and Munoz had desks and computers inside the Azteca offices at 4500 S. Kolin when it was raided by FBI agents in July 2008. Under the search warrant, the federal agents were forbidden from searching the legislators’ desks or computers.

The raid was part of a joint investigation by federal agents and the city of Chicago’s inspector general, and resulted in criminal charges against Venegas, 63, of Naperville, and her husband. Thomas Masen, 67.

Venegas, who grew up on Chicago’s South Side, created Azteca, which won certification from the city of Chicago as a business owned and operated by a woman and a minority, allowing the company to win millions of dollars in government contracts set aside for such businesses. Azteca had become the largest female-owned contractor at O’Hare Airport, often working for general contractors who had to meet City Hall’s requirements to share work with minorities and women.

But the investigation revealed that in three contracts — a runway project at O’Hare, the disposal of feminine hygiene products at the airport, and landscaping work for the Metra station in Orland Park — Venegas’ company did little, if any work. On the runway project, Venegas was supposed to supply precast concrete pipes that were actually provided by National Concrete Pipe, where her husband was the comptroller. Masen admitted helping run his wife’s company, a violation of the city’s rules for companies that have been certified as woman-owned and operated.

Venegas pleaded guilty to mail fraud nearly two years ago, while her husband admitted lying to the FBI. But Venegas has repeatedly insisted that her company wasn’t a phony woman-owned business, a defiant position that cost her an extra two months in prison, according to U.S. District Court Judge Robert M. Dow Jr.

“She knew what she and Azteca were supposed to be doing . . . and she knew Azteca wasn’t living up to those requirements,” Dow said. “I concluded she intended to defraud the city of Chicago and has not accepted responsibility for her actions.”

The judge, however, noted that the indictment only involved three city contracts, saying, “As far as I know, there are a lot of contracts out there where she did fine.”

Dow sentenced Venegas to 26 months in prison, two months longer than her husband received. She must repay $482,500, while her husband must repay $450,000. They will report to prison after Thanksgiving.

Dow said city officials should have known that Venegas wasn’t doing any work on those contracts because she had a “lack of inventory,” but City Hall continued to recertify it as a business owned and operated by a woman.

Outside the courtroom, Venegas said she was unaware that she wasn’t living up to the rules of the city’s program setting aside work for women and minorities.

“The WBE program is a wonderful program and it helped me advance,” Venegas said. “I would do nothing to harm it. I kept getting certified [by city officials as a WBE and MBE]. I thought I was a golden girl.”

Venegas had hired the law firm of former mayoral candidate Gery Chico, now president of the Illinois State Board of Education, to help her win certification from City Hall. Chico’s firm has previously denied knowing that Venegas’ company wasn’t doing the work it was hired to do on city contracts.

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