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Ex-parking VP says Chicago bribe unnecessary, left him a ‘pariah’

One of the parking kiosks that were installed after Chicago's parking meters were privatized. | Sun-Times files

The former parking executive who sold a $22 million contract for Chicago’s parking meters to a Florida businessman for a $90,000 bribe says the businessman probably could have landed the contract without paying one dirty dime.

But Felipe “Phil” Oropesa took the bribe anyway when it was offered to him by George Levey of Cale Parking Systems USA Inc. And as a result, Oropesa says he has been “publicly shamed,” lost his job and has few prospects to help him support his wife and three children. In short, Oropesa said he’s become “a pariah.”

“Phil Oropesa will go to his grave regretting the bonehead decision to take George Levey up on his offer,” Paul Kish, Oropesa’s lawyer, wrote in a new court filing Thursday.

The sentencing memo filed in U.S. District Court in Atlanta is the first time Oropesa, 57, has told his side of the story. The Chicago Sun-Times first revealed that federal agents had been investigating the kickback scheme in June 2015. When contacted by a reporter at the time, Oropesa called it “news to me” and declined to comment further.

Felipe “Phil” Oropesa | Twitter
Felipe “Phil” Oropesa | Twitter

Oropesa’s sentencing hearing is set for Sept. 8 in Atlanta. It follows the sentencing earlier this week in Chicago of former City Hall employee John Bills, who landed a 10-year sentence in a similar, but far grander, scheme to steer the city’s red-light camera program to a preferred company in exchange for $680,000 in bribes.

Levey, meanwhile, pleaded guilty to a similar parking meter scam in Oregon and was sentenced to 15 months in prison after cooperating with federal investigators and tipping them off to the Chicago bribe.

Federal authorities in Chicago filed charges against Oropesa last December. His case was transferred to Atlanta, and he pleaded guilty in April to wire fraud. Oropesa’s memo indicates he could face between 21 and 27 months in prison. Kish argues his client should face as little as 15 months in prison, and he asked a judge to consider going even lower.

Oropesa was immediately fired by LAZ Parking after the Sun-Times revealed the investigation. Because of the publicity, he “has been unable to find other work in the only field he knows, the parking industry,” according to Kish. Born in Cuba, Oropesa rose from a gig writing tickets for the New York parking department after high school to his job as vice president for municipal services at LAZ, which he landed in 2008. He is now also a naturalized U.S. citizen.

“The parking industry is a relatively small community,” Kish wrote. “Word quickly spread about Mr. Oropesa’s foolish decision to take George Levey’s money, and that (Oropesa) had been fired by LAZ. As a result, (Oropesa’s) reputation in this small community is destroyed. Obviously, he has no one to blame but himself.”

Oropesa oversaw LAZ’s rollout of Chicago’s privatized parking meters after Chicago Parking Meters LLC leased the city’s meters for 75 years in exchange for an upfront payment of about $1.15 billion, records show. Levey has said Oropesa gave him inside information that helped him craft a bid for the Chicago contract.

However, Oropesa said he told his boss in 2008 that Levey’s company would be the best vendor “many months” before Levey offered Oropesa the bribe. Still, Oropesa decided to accept the money, and he later sat on a three-member committee that endorsed Levey’s company for the contract.

In 2009 and 2010, Levey delivered $90,000 to Oropesa through Landmark Sales & Marketing, a company set up by Oropesa’s wife. However, there is no evidence his wife “knew anything about the sources of the funds from George Levey, why the money was being paid, and whether the funds had anything to do with her husband’s failure to provide ‘honest services’ to LAZ parking,” Kish wrote.

Now, not only has Oropesa been publicly shamed, Kish argues that the bribes are roughly six years old and “the case only came to light because George Levey got caught and told the FBI about what happened in Chicago.” Kish also argued the $90,000 in bribes “pale in comparison to other cases.”

Finally, because the bribe was funneled through a shell company, the Oropesas “paid taxes on these funds,” Kish wrote. Still, the court is expected to order Oropesa to pay back the full amount, with no credit for the taxes paid.

“Defendant fell prey to temptation, one of the oldest of human frailties,” Kish wrote. “However, the remainder of his life story demonstrates that he is a man of character, and is a person for whom punishment need not be quite so harsh.”