Mhde “David” Askar, the government informant who tried to bribe Ald. Howard Brookins for a liquor license, took the witness stand Monday but shed no light on his undercover work.
Askar’s appearance in federal court had nothing to do with the investigation of Brookins (21st) or the case against the alderman’s chief of staff, Curtis V. Thompson, who is charged with accepting the $7,500 cash bribe.
Instead, Askar was called to testify during a sentencing hearing for one of his co-defendants in the mortgage fraud scheme that originally ensnared Askar and resulted in his cooperation with federal authorities.
Still, it was a first chance to size up the young man who federal agents say has been cooperating since March 2008 and most recently has been used since September 2012 in an ongoing investigation that has focused at least in part on how liquor licenses are awarded in Chicago.
According to court documents, that latter investigation was aimed at one point at obtaining liquor licenses in the wards of three other unnamed Chicago aldermen before zeroing in on Brookins, who has not been charged.
First impressions of Askar as a witness: smart, cautious, disciplined, though maybe not the next coming of John Christopher or Michael Raymond a/k/a Michael Burnett, the last two government moles to really blow the lid off City Hall.
That remains to be seen, however, with the full extent of Askar’s cooperation yet to be revealed.
Askar was just 23 when he was indicted twice in 2008 in connection with two separate mortgage fraud schemes. But according to his plea agreement, he was just 18 when he began the illegal activity that resulted in the charges against him.
Askar and nine co-defendants were accused of fraudulently obtaining $17.2 million in mortgage loans in connection with luxury condos in Millennium Centre, 33 W. Ontario St.
Anthony Sasson, an attorney for one of those co-defendants, Mahmoud Saleh, called Askar to testify Monday in an effort to buttress Saleh’s contention that he played a less important role in the scheme than alleged.
Saleh also pleaded guilty, but is trying to convince U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman that his partner Askar, although 10 years younger, was really the one calling the shots.
Askar, with short-cropped hair and wearing a white shirt and tie, kept his cool as Sasson attempted without much luck to show that he’s still engaged in arranging real estate financing, which could be a violation of his plea deal.
Askar said he now works only as a property manager for five buildings on the South Side.
One big question is what Askar may have been doing for federal investigators in between the original mortgage fraud cases and the liquor license probe.
During the sentencing hearing for his co-defendant, Askar answered with a lot of simple yes and nos, along with a few “I don’t recall”s.
Among the curious is Dennis Berkson, lawyer for another of Askar’s co-defendants, Ahmad Karkukly, previously convicted with the help of Askar’s testimony.
“The government has shown great interest in helping him,” observed Berkson, who called Askar a “serial mortgage fraudster” during Karkukly’s trial while portraying him as the mastermind of the scheme.
Court records show Askar has been allowed to travel extensively while awaiting sentencing, which was scheduled for this month before the Brookins revelations.
Even before Askar’s help in the liquor license investigation, federal prosecutors had agreed to recommend a sentence reduction of 45 percent for his help. With an anticipated sentencing guideline range of 87 to 108 months, that would cut his sentence to 39 months. Now he can expect a further reduction.
You might be wondering how anybody could be so stupid as to get caught in a scandal involving a guy already in trouble with the federal government. That thought has certainly crossed my mind, especially considering that if you Google Askar’s name, his indictments pop right up.
Then again, there’s nothing that says whether he was using his real name in his dealings with Brookins and Thompson or with Individuals A and B, the unidentified licensed city expediter and friend who were also targeted in the payoff attempt.
I still can’t tell you if we’re looking at the tip of an iceberg or just the dying trail of a fireworks rocket that fizzled on ignition.