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Board of Review bribery trial starts

Tuesday, October 22, 2013
Chicago Sun-Times
by Kim Janssen

The trial of two Cook County employees who allegedly took bribes to fix property tax appeals began Monday with one of the defendants claiming he is a junkie who “ripped off” a government witness to feed his heroin addiction.

Thomas Hawkins, 49, and John Racasi, 52, were caught on tape accepting a $1,500 cash bribe to slash the property taxes on three buildings to the tune of $14,000 in 2008, prosecutors say.

Both men worked as analysts for Cook County Board of Review Commissioner Larry Rogers Jr. and they “pushed and pushed for the bribe payments they expected,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Margaret Jean Schneider told jurors at the start of what’s expected to be a weeklong trial.

But representing Hawkins, lawyer John Beal said the $1,500 cash Hawkins took from a government witness wasn’t a bribe because Hawkins never did anything in return for it.

Instead, he said Hawkins “ripped off the government’s cooperator.” Hawkins knew that most property owners who appealed their taxes to the Board of Review got a reduction even without corrupt help, so he simply pocketed the “bribe,” did nothing, and used the cash to buy heroin, Beal said.

“Mr. Hawkins is not a saint,” Beal added. “He has a very human flaw.”

Representing Racasi, lawyer Heather Winslow noted that 79 percent of appellants got a tax reduction in 2008, arguing that Racasi had no power to affect the outcome of individual appeals.

She poured scorn on the government’s star witness — disgraced former Chicago Police Officer Ali Haleem, who cooperated with the feds after he was himself caught soliciting bribes from tow truck drivers and selling a gun to a felon.

Tapes Haleem secretly made of himself discussing bribes with Hawkins and Racasi are due to be played for jurors Tuesday, when Haleem is expected to take the stand.

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