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Undercover officer played big role in latest federal investigation

Wednesday, July 18, 2012
Chicago Sun-Times

For four years a Chicago Police officer caught up in a federal investigation of public corruption and gun trafficking has been working undercover as a crooked cop — and for the second day in a row federal authorities rolled out the fruits of his labors.

While the nine individuals he’s helped reel in so far have been relative bluegills in the shark-infested waters of Chicago politics, every indication is that federal authorities have yet to reveal the full extent of his work.

And here’s what really ought to frighten those who might have reason to worry that they’re next: The dirty cop is scary good at this undercover stuff.

Court documents released so far show he does such a thorough job of causing the investigative targets to swallow the hook that the defendants will be choking on self-incriminating statements caught on tape. That increases the likelihood that they’ll want to cooperate against somebody else.

For instance, there’s the defendant who confided he always passes his bribes in folders, not envelopes. Less conspicuous that way. Or the Cook County correctional officer who handed over his $5,000 bribe for a government grant and whispered: “It feels like a drug deal, man.”

In the latest case, federal agents arrested two employees of Cook County Board of Review Commissioner Larry Rogers Jr. for taking bribes to fix property tax appeals.

The dirty cop managed to get them to explain not only how they put in the fix but also to reveal they had been taking bribes in exchange for property tax breaks for at least two years.

He even helped them work out their illicit code for referring to cash bribes. When they wanted a cash payment, defendant Thomas Hawkins suggested they say: “Let’s go to lunch, bring some lettuce.” The conspirators agreed to keep a “lettuce fund.”

The new arrests came on the heels of Tuesday’s roundup of seven individuals accused of paying kickbacks in exchange for government grants — most of them connected in some way to former state Sen. Rickey Hendon of Chicago.

The latest case also has Hendon connections. Former Hendon campaign treasurer Dean Nichols, an Oak Park accountant who was charged in the grant kickback scheme, is also alleged to have served as the go-between for the dirty cop and the bribe-taking tax appeals analysts. In addition, Hendon formerly worked at the Board of Review under Rogers. Neither of them could be reached for comment.

Both cases resulted from ruses engineered by the dirty cop, who like most of the best undercover moles really is dirty.

Although not currently facing any charges, prosecutors say the mole will likely be charged in the future with attempted extortion and firearms-related offenses stemming from a July 2008 arrest.

While his name has yet to be revealed, court documents indicate that in the early 1990s he managed a bar owned by Nichols, and his family owned an auto-repair business for which Nichols was the accountant.

The police officer has told authorities he and Nichols once offered a $10,000 bribe to a former Chicago alderman for a Police Department promotion. The former alderman has confirmed the offer, investigators say, but both he and the cop say no payment was made nor promotion received. Now there’s an upset.

The big question is how many other corruption cases the mole has helped investigators make.

It would be disappointing if those nine arrests were all that federal investigators had to show for such an extensive undercover effort. The simple fact authorities left their informant in play for nearly four years after uncovering evidence of systemic and pervasive corruption in the property tax appeal process (the bribes were in 2008) would seem to confirm they are aiming higher.

As this plays out, we might start asking whether this guy is the best mole since John Christopher in Silver Shovel or Michael Raymond, a k a Burnett, in Operation Incubator — two guys who were so bent by nature that they made perfectly believable undercover operatives for catching corrupt public officials.

Please don’t get this mole confused with the other undercover mole who recently surfaced in the investigation involving former Cook County Joseph Mario Moreno and previously convicted Ald. Ambrosio Medrano.

That mole, a Bridgeport businessman with tax problems, has been out there wired up by the feds for two years, which raises intriguing possibilities on its own.

It also makes you wonder what would happen if two undercover moles working separate probes crossed paths.

What happens if you cross the streams?

It would be bad. Especially for anybody with a lettuce fund.

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