Cash bribes allegedly changed hands at the Starbucks across from City Hall, at a nearby Dunkin Donuts and in front of Oprah Winfrey's Harpo Studios.
The bribes were said to be as small as $100, and as large as $12,000, and some came in the form of box seats to a Chicago Bulls game.
Fifteen people were arrested and charged in an investigation involving allegations of corruption and bribery in the city’s Building and Zoning departments. Among those charged were Dumitru Curescu, Phyllis Mendenhall, Petru Cladovan, and MacArthur Milam.
They all went toward the same cause: fabricating or expediting city inspections, federal authorities charged Thursday.
Seven city employees -- and eight others -- who allegedly passed or pocketed bribes to grease city deals, were charged in a sweeping federal probe into what authorities called a "systemic" culture driven by greed.
Much of the investigation, led by the City's Inspector General, U.S. Postal Inspection Service and the FBI, stemmed through the work of a mole who caught incriminating conversations on tape. On several occasions, the mole, who acts as a bagman, takes the bribe after the person agrees he or she is "willing to pay what it takes."
While 15 people were charged, the mole told authorities of 15 others who were bribed.
"There's every reason to think there are more charges to come in the future," U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald warned. "There are people who have taken or given bribes who ought to be sweating."
City Inspector General David Hoffman said the bribes persisted despite a round of inspector arrests in 2007 on bribery charges. The employees taking the bribes are paid; "good salaries with excellent benefits," he said.
"We're talking systemic corruption," Hoffman said.
City employees charged include: plumbing inspector Mario Olivella, 40; zoning investigator William Wellhausen, 50; supervisory ventilation and furnace inspector MacArthur Milam, 56; inquiry aide Phyllis Mendenhall, 54; zoning department investigator Anthony Valentino, 65; ventilation and furnace inspector Thomas Ziroli, 62; and clerk Louis Burns, 52.
Two of the developers charged -- Beny Garneata, 43, of Lincolnwood and Teofil Scorte, 27, of Morton Grove -- are clients of James Banks, one of the city's top zoning lawyers whose uncle, Ald. William Banks, heads the City Council's Committee on Zoning.
Garneata was referred to on a recording as a "hot stud," by city employee who allegedly took his bribe as he awaited in a black SUV in front of "Oprah's place," according to a court filing. Garneata and his companies have donated $23,000 in campaign contrbutions since 1999 includong $5,600 to Gov. Blagojevich and $4,000 to the 36th Ward Democratic Organization run by Ald. William Banks.
Wellhausen is named on the clout list that came out during the trial of Mayor Daley's patronage director, Robert Sorich. Wellhausen landed a city job with the help of Ald. Bank's 36th Ward Demcractic Organization, according to the clout list.
Other property owners, developers and contractors charged include: Petru Cladovan, 48, who owns ABC Construction & Plumbing; Dumitru Curescu, 46, and his wife, Lavinia Curescu, 42, Vasile Fofiu, 57, Ronald Piekarz, 47 and Lucian Muresan, 34.
A series of criminal complaints, authored by postal inspector David Hodapp and FBI Special Agent Tom Simon, unsealed Thursday, outline a pattern of bribery to speed the city's permit wait time. In one case, a bribe ensured one developer could add "illegal dwellings" to a building, another ensured a faulty porch passed code. "Just tell him he had a number of ... issues and you know, he got passed anyway," Valentino is allegedly caught on tape saying.
Asked how taxpayers can have faith in the safety of Chicago buildings when so many employees are on the take, Mayor Daley said, "You're talking about a few. You cannot condemn everybody for a few."
Daley noted that the investigation originated with the former federal prosecutor he hired to root out City Hall corruption from within. Never mind that Daley and Hoffman have been at loggerheads for months and the mayor's office has apparently been undermining Hoffman behind the scenes.
Daley was hardpressed to explain why corruption in the Buildings Department continued more than a year after the first wave of indictments.
FBI chief Robert Grant said city inspectors hold the critical job of enforcing building code -- and that structures are built safely. Skirting the code means putting people's lives at risk, he said.
"You don't find that risk until something tragic happens," Grant said. Olivella, the plumbing inspector, who wore a yellow t-shirt in court that read: "It'll be ... SWEET AS SUGAR," seemed to take the charges in stride. Upon leaving the courthouse he joked with an acquaintance: "If you ever need plumbing -- don't call me."