Ex-cab official a small fish, but indictment could cause ripples

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Compared to the sharks and whales we’ve seen the feds reel in, former top Chicago cab-company executive Alexsandr Igolnikov is a minnow.

After his federal indictment last week on charges of laundering vehicle titles, Igolnikov went free on $50,000 bail. Single Chicago taxi medallions have been valued at several times more than that.

The big question regarding Igolnikov, 67, is which bigger fish he might be able to flip on. It’s unlikely the ongoing, four-year-old federal probe aims to net no bigger catch than him.

Igolnikov’s indictment also could have an impact on the high-dollar political battle between the city’s cab oligarchs and the upstart rideshare companies such as Uber and Lyft, which enjoy the favor of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Gov. Pat Quinn.

Igolnikov’s indictment couldn’t come at a worse moment for the cab companies. Helped by an army of lobbyists, lawyers and public-relations pros, they have waged an expensive campaign at City Hall and in Springfield to get their new rivals regulated as tightly as they are.

The rideshare companies suffer from the perception that they’re endangering the livelihood of taxi drivers. It’s much better for Uber and the other rideshare companies if the focus shifts to the people who own the once-lucrative, city-issued medallions and the cabs — like Igolnikov’s former business associate, Symon Garber.

The Soviet-born Garber appeared in town a few years ago, seemingly out of nowhere, and quickly became Chicago’s cab king.

Records show he is invested deeply in protecting his status against the rideshare companies. Garber’s companies here and in New York and New Orleans have contributed $200,000 — nearly half of what’s been raised — for the new political-action committee formed by the taxi interests.

Garber appears to be equally intent on spending large sums on more pleasant pursuits. After taking up residence in Florida, the cab magnate and his family hosted an event called “Meet the Garbers: New Addition to the Palm Beach Community.”

In a video on YouTube, Garber appears astride a galloping horse as the host of “Polopalooza,” a game between two polo teams named after his cab companies in Chicago and New York. The event also featured “fine wines” and a “caviar tasting.”

In the video, Garber said he liked Palm Beach because there are “a lot of egos and wealth and interesting things,” adding that he owned of “one of the largest cab companies in North America, and we’re growing.”

The growing pains have included being forced to pay a $1.6 million fine two months ago by New York state’s attorney general for charging cabbies illegal fees.

There were big fines against Garber here, too, after a series of Chicago Sun-Times Watchdogs reports on his rapid rise to prominence in 2010. The stories prompted the probe that snared Igolnikov.

Federal prosecutors charge that Igolnikov – while working with Garber  — illegally obtained “clean” titles for 180 wrecked cars that were put back into service as taxis on Chicago streets, despite rules banning that practice on safety grounds.

The charges come as the cab industry lobby complains that the more lightly regulated rideshare companies would be a greater threat to the public than taxis.

Igolnikov has hired the powerhouse criminal defense lawyer Ed Genson, who declined comment. A spokeswoman for Garber said he and Igolnikov last worked together in 2011 but would not comment on the corruption case.

Also declining comment was a lawyer for the cab companies — former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s longtime corporation counsel, Mara Georges.

She’s not Garber’s only tie to Daley. Garber once told Sun-Times reporter Tim Novak he was drinking buddies with the ex-mayor’s son Patrick Daley (although Garber and Daley administration officials both said the relationship had nothing to do with the rapid rise of Garber’s taxi fortunes here).

The rideshare companies have plenty of clout, too. The mayor’s brother Ari Emanuel is an Uber investor, and former Quinn chief of staff Jack Lavin has gone to work for Uber.

It wouldn’t be fair to hold Igolnikov’s legal issues against the other Chicago cab companies. But as they struggle to stay afloat, the other taxi companies could suffer harm from not only the new-wave rivals but also from their allies in this fight.

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