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Ex-revenue inspector pleads guilty to extortion
Former Cook County official tipped off merchants selling illegal cigarettes

Wednesday, July 31, 2013
Chicago Tribune
by Mitch Smith

A former Cook County revenue inspector who was supposed to ensure that merchants weren't illegally selling cigarettes admitted Tuesday that he instead pocketed payoffs for tipping the stores off to upcoming inspections.

Robert Mitchell, who collected a total of $5,400 in bribes from a store manager who turned out to be cooperating with the FBI, pleaded guilty to a federal extortion charge. He faces up to two years in prison under federal sentencing guidelines. U.S. District Judge John Tharp Jr. set sentencing for Oct. 29.

In his work with the Cook County Department of Revenue, Mitchell visited businesses to ensure that cigarettes for sale had the correct tax stamps. Some merchants purchase cigarettes in neighboring states where the taxes are lower and then illegally resell them in Cook County without paying city, county and state taxes that can total $46 for a carton. If shops are caught with illegal cigarettes, the fines can be thousands of dollars.

Instead of showing up unannounced to check on whether the shops were paying the local taxes, Mitchell agreed to warn an undisclosed merchant by text message to the inspections at his stores and others operated by associates. Mitchell had instructed the merchant to use a prepaid phone for their communications, and the two employed a limited, crude code to try to conceal the wrongdoing.

At least two inspections occurred after Mitchell texted the merchant about scheduled visits, prosecutors said.

In return, the merchant paid Mitchell $600 a month over nine months in late 2011 and last year. Each time, the merchant, who was secretly cooperating with the FBI, counted out six $100 bills for Mitchell while secretly recording their meeting.

The merchant had been ticketed previously for selling cigarettes without proper tax stamps, authorities said.

A county spokesman said Tuesday that Mitchell, 40, was fired from his county job last month. He had previously been placed on unpaid leave after being charged last August. He had been employed since 2008.

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