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Small Berwyn hardware store finds big business in Cicero

A poster for Cicero Town President Larry Dominick is displayed window Lembke   Sons Hardware Berwyn  Feb. 1

A poster for Cicero Town President Larry Dominick is displayed in the window of Lembke & Sons Hardware in Berwyn on Feb. 1, 2013. | Sun-Times Media files

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Updated: March 7, 2013 6:17AM

When it comes to hardware stores, the Town of Cicero definitely has its store of choice.

More often than not, town employees don’t head to a Home Depot or Menards, both within a mile of the town hall.

Instead, they travel several miles away to Berwyn.

They patronize a mom-and-pop hardware store, Lembke & Sons True Value.

Since 2005, the town has spent more than $3 million at the 4,500-square-foot store with 10 parking spaces.

The years-long shopping spree and some of the purchases have attracted the attention of Cicero’s inspector general and could still result in criminal charges.

Over the years, town employees have bought the usual hardware supplies at Lembke’s.

Plus thousands of dollars in Halloween masks and supplies, including two separate “Chuckles the Clown” decorations — one “shivering” and another “waving,” records show.

And then there’s five snow blowers the town’s rodent control department thought it needed — a purchase the town’s inspector general apparently questioned.

The small store has been good to Town President Larry Dominick.

The store and one of its owners have given more than $50,000 in cash and in-kind contributions to Dominick’s campaign fund since he took office in 2005.

Dominick is running for re-election this year, and customers walking into the store can’t miss the Dominick campaign sign prominently displayed.

Spending at the store has caught the attention of Cicero Inspector General James Klosak, according to reports reviewed by the Sun-Times. Klosak began an investigation of the rodent department last year, but so far, the town board has not taken any formal action.

Klosak accused several Cicero department heads of befriending and socializing with the store’s president, Alan Lembke, “creating an atmosphere of collusion, and giving an unfair advantage to the vendor.”

Cicero spokesman Ray Hanania said Dominick would not “drill down to that level to tell somebody to go buy something from another contractor.”

“He’s not involved in this,” he said of Dominick.

Klosak put the relationship between Cicero employees and the hardware store to the test, though. According to a report written in September, an undercover investigator was able to bill more than $100 worth of merchandise to the town simply by donning a Cicero sweatshirt, using a fake name and claiming to be a town employee — no ID required. The experiment failed when it was tried at a nearby Menards in Cicero.

Lembke did not return messages from the Sun-Times seeking comment.

“Lembke True Value Hardware, [in] Berwyn, has long enjoyed the benefits of being the nearly exclusive source of merchandise purchased by several TOC [Town of Cicero] Departments,” Klosak wrote in one report.

The reports were written during Klosak’s inquiry last year into purchasing practices within Cicero’s rodent department. Hanania confirmed an investigation took place that could lead to changes in purchasing policies in Cicero later this month. He also said the inspector general is still trying to decide whether to pursue criminal charges.

He wouldn’t confirm, however, the specific details contained in the reports the Sun-Times reviewed without seeing them himself. It’s election season in Cicero, Hanania said, and “shenanigans” are often afoot.

Cicero Town Clerk Maria Punzo-Arias apparently pointed the finger at the rodent department last year, according to the reports, expressing concerns in June about purchases “not being applicable to the function of the rodent department.” She declined to comment to the Sun-Times in an email, citing an ongoing investigation.

Klosak pointed out in his reports that rodent department spending at Lembke’s jumped from $24,000 in 2010 to $63,000 in 2011. The rodent department was not the biggest spender at Lembke’s — it was behind the public works department, which spent $342,000 in 2011, and the maintenance department, which spent $138,000 that year.

Rodent department Director Michael Iniquez found himself explaining how his staff used an Apple iPod, an Amazon Kindle and a television, among other items purchased by the department at a different Cicero store, according to the reports. He said the iPod was used to provide music for parade floats and festivals, the Kindle was for online classes and books and the TV was for checking the weather and showing instructional videos.

But five snow blowers from Lembke’s also became an issue. Iniquez told Klosak the snow blowers were purchased “during a period of significant snowfall, to clear around the bait boxes, and to clear the snow from the parking lot,” according to one report.

But Klosak, son of a former Cicero town president, said rodent department employees might have tried to thwart his investigation by replacing three newer-model snow blowers with older ones ahead of a planned July 19 inspection. In September, the newer snowblowers were still missing.

His office gave 48 hours notice before he visited the rodent department that day around 10:30 a.m., Klosak wrote in his reports. When he got there he wrote down the make, model and serial numbers of five snow blowers kept in a storage area and a shed.

But when Klosak looked online and found discrepancies in what he saw and what was purchased at Lembke’s, he decided to pay a second visit to the shed and called Iniquez and rodent department Supervisor Christopher Wasicki around 1 p.m. to arrange it.

The men allegedly told Klosak they’d already left work for the day and couldn’t let him in. Klosak eventually called the Cicero Fire Department to help him force entry to the shed. Four snow blowers were impounded by the Cicero Police Department.

Iniquez did not respond to requests for comment. Wasicki declined to comment when reached by the Sun-Times.

Iniquez has been in hot water in the past. The Chicago Sun-Times reported the town last year suspended Iniquez from his job in the rodent department for three days without pay and ordered him to undergo counseling after he allegedly made a racist post on Facebook. He was also censured by the Morton High School District 201 school board of which he is a member.

Iniquez and Wasicki allegedly told Klosak they never compared the prices at Lembke’s hardware store to his competitors’. Wasicki said he went to Lembke’s for “ease in and out,” according to Klosak’s report. And Iniquez allegedly acknowledged to Klosak he considers Lembke a friend.

“There is no reason, friendship or circumstances for the Rodent Department to patronize certain vendors,” Iniquez allegedly told Klosak.

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