Human Resources Board Policy Keeps Convicted Employees on the Payroll
By Michael Volpe
On September 23rd, 2010 Jose Hernandez became the fifteenth city building inspector to be convicted of taking payoffs in what's been termed operation crooked code. Yet, according to Bill McCaffrey, spokesperson for the buildings department, Hernandez continues to draw a paycheck. Worst of all, McCaffrey says this occurs because Hernandez was able to manipulate a mandate put in place by the Human Resources Board. This board has had its own history of corruption, the latest involved a Reverend, Lucious Hall, who was taking money to look the other way on cases involving city workers with clout. This rule allows anyone facing formal charges to appeal any potential final termination until their sentencing. Yet, all of these folks are still fired though not terminated. What that effectively means is that they draw a paycheck without doing any work. In fact, when this was first revealed, the city actually had these guys go back to work supposedly doing menial administrative work.
Of course, Hernandez is not the only building inspector to do this. That's what's happened in the cases of Michael Reese and Mario Olivella, both convicted of bribery related charges. Reese, convicted in the fall of 2009, remained on the payroll until August 15th 2010. Meanwhile Olivella is still on the payroll. They remained on the city's payroll according to the same rules set up by the Human Resources Board. McCaffrey referred to that rule as making him "frustrated", however that was the reason given for why they remained (or remain) on the payroll so long. McCaffrey said that most city employees stay on the city's payroll until they are sentenced, not convicted, because that's when the Human Resources Board considers the legal process over. Reese was finally sentenced in August and so his termination was finalized on the 15th of August. Olivella has yet to be sentenced and so he still remains on the city's payroll.. Each made about $90,000 yearly.
Meanwhile, at least two others who were also convicted and sentenced were fired long before that ever happened. In the cases of Travis Echols and Jon Chamberlain, both were terminated around a year before they were sentenced. This dichotomy is peculiar and McCaffrey didn't immediately return an email for explanation. In the simplest of terms, this happens because of something we all cynically the Chicago Way. If we wanted to understand it more broadly, one way to do it is to examine the records of the two that got a pass. You'd expect that since they got a pass, their record prior to this should be strong. If it wasn't, you'd say the whole process is corrupt.
Both Olivella and Reese were convicted of taking bribes while working for Building Department as part of the larger Operation Crooked Code sting run by the FBI starting in 2007. This is a sting started after the FBI caught Dave Johnson, a building department employee of taking bribes. Johnson flipped, wore a wire, and testified for a significantly reduced sentence. From there, it blew into an operation that nabbed dozens of dirty officials, expediters, and users of the buildings department. Johnson is part of another of Chicago's doorways to corruption, the so called Clout List. That's a list of about five thousand names of city employees and where they got the clout to get their city job. In order to get clout for a city job, one had to perform enough political activity for a person or entity with clout. The list was developed by disgraced former Daley deputy Robert Sorich. Sorich was one of several top Daley deputies to be imprisoned in connection to the Hired Truck Scandal. Another name on this clout list is the name, Mario Olivella. According to the list, Olivella got his clout from the Local Plumber's Union. Johnson got his clout from Jesse White. Hernandez, who worked for the city since 1988, wouldn't be on this clout list, which was reserved for those that initially got jobs in the beginning of the last decade.
Meanwhile, within Operation Crooked Code, all three are linked by Catherine Romasanta. Romasanto was what those in this business called an "expeditor". It was her job to move the process of receiving the multiple licenses necessary to move real estate forward as quickly as possible. The field of expeditors displayed the kind of corruption we here in Chicago are used to. Romasanta received a reduced sentenced after she testified against Hernandez, Reese and Olivella's trials along with the trials of several other inspectors. Both Ollivella and Reese were also among more than a dozen city inspectors implicated in 2005 of accepting $100 gift cards from expiditors like Romasanto.
On January 5th, 2010, Mario Ollivella was convicted of two counts of bribery and conspiracy. It's alleged that Ollivella took bribes to look the other way on issues with a property at 1637 W. Granville In fact, former department of buildings inspector Charles Walker remembers that Olivella inspected 1637 W. Granville at least once before the time frame of the bribes he was convicted.. Meanwhile, plumbing inspector Michael McGann says that Olivella also covered up a contaminated water leak at Jose De Diego Grade School on the 1300 block of North Claremont in 2007.
"Yes, without a doubt from the beginning! Mr. Olivella went behind my back after my two page violation notice was submitted to Chief Frank Bathauer and PIC Olivella. Both Olivella and Deputy Peter Ousley went behind my back to the school to discredit my inspection report through a meeting with the principal. The principal, Alice Vera however, was not having any of their rhetoric. Ms. Vera explained to Olivella and Ousley that we (the principal, the building engineer, the Chief engineer on speakerphone, the regional manager and Inspector McGann) had consensus at our meeting days before and had agreed all the violations would be abated over the Thanksgiving holiday by a Licensed Plumbing Contractor! Both Olivella and Ousley told Ms. Vera that I was out of control and caused hysteria regarding the seriousness of the violations! Mr. Ousley went even further and played down the serious context of the violation notice in an official City of Chicago Memo letterhead! Mr. Ousley left the Department of Buildings shortly after writing this memo!"
Olivella wasn't through. Finally, a conttactor was called but Olivella signed off on an all good order days later. Here's what McGann said happened next. "The very next day (on January 11, 2008) the Department of Health shut down the school due to dangerous water quality!! This speaks volumes regarding the incompetence and arrogance of a person who was handed the position by the Plumbers Local Union 130 Business Manager James T. Sullivan. There was no regard for seniority or qualifications of all the candidates (including myself)! Mr. Olivella's oversight regarding the water quality is huge and must be highlighted as 1,100 children's welfare and well being were on the line! This school had a full kitchen for supplying lunches, drinking fountains throughout the hallways and a swimming pool with full showering capabilities!"
Incredibly, it was McGann and not Olivella that would ultimately face punishment as a result of this incident. The department of buildings gave McGann first a three and then a fifteen day citation. Meanwhile, the FBI first indicted Olivella two months following the end of McGann's second suspension.
When McGann heard that Olivella was still on the city payroll six months after being convicted of taking bribes, he was unfortunately totally unsurprised, " No, this is the City that works! The bribes, contractor kickbacks and payoffs were only the beginning. The illegal monies were used to take trips to Las Vegas to gamble, among other things! When someone is indicted they continue to receive their paychecks until they are convicted!! He was totally unsurprised to hear that Olivella took bribes to look the other way since, "that's exactly what he did when I inspected that property earlier." He was totally unsurprised to hear that Olivella took bribes to look the other way on that same address since, "that's exactly what he did when I inspected that property earlier."
In fact, he says both Olivella and Reese have the same habit, "As soon as I would write up a violation, they (Reese and Olivella) would downgrade or totally eliminate them."
Walker says he also has experience with corruption perpetrated by Michael Reese. He once inspected a building on 5835 South Indiana. On January 19th, 2005, the fire department wrote up a violation of that building saying, "squalors living in building." This triggered a building department inspection that wound up being conducted by Walker. When he came to the building he found at least ten people inside. Walker concluded after the inspection that this property should be considered a hotel or other multi unit residence. He was shocked to learn that the building was in fact zoned as a single family dwelling. He immediately submitted a report with Reese noting that among a series of violations. On September 25th, 2006 that same property filed for a permit with the city. At the time of this permit, tt was still listed as a single family dwelling and the expeditor on this permit was Catherine Romasanto.
Walker says he was fired from the Building department after he missed a crack in scaffolding on a building at 937 West Belmont. He says that it was more than a year before that crack was fixed on that same building. Walker is also not surprised that both were still on the city's payroll long after they'd been convicted of taking bribes while performing their duties. "The building department is a criminal enterprise. The higher ups are insulated."
While there appears to be no rhyme or reason why it is Hernandez, Olivella, and Reese got a break and all the others lost their income earlier, in fact, there's a twisted logic to all this. First, all three have clout. Olivella and Reese are on the clout list and the only reason Hernandez isn't is because he's been a city employee so long he would appear on a list that would have been made many years before the clout list, which was made in the early part of 2000's.
Also, all three of their cases were complicated. In the cases of several of those that were dismissed already, only the Inspector General's office of the City of Chicago was running the operation. In fact, most of those that got out early, only "dipped their hands in the cookie jar" once so to speak. The cases against Hernandez, Reese and Olivella were much more complicated, involved the FBI, and often involved informants wearing wires.
Of course, it's the second that's more difficult to prove. So, that allowed all three to stay on, especially since the FBI didn't necessarily want to share what they had on each until they had to for trial, not to get them fired. That's really beside the point. The idea that some board with a history of corruption would allow for such a rule should offend everyone reading this. We should all demand that the rule be changed immediately.