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Ex-top city official pleads not guilty to bribing state senator

William Helm is an old-school political operative and former city deputy aviation commissioner whose name surfaced repeatedly in ongoing public corruption investigations.

Former Deputy Chicago Aviation Commissioner William Helm entering the Dirksen Federal Building in March after being indicted for bribery.
Former Deputy Chicago Aviation Commissioner William Helm walks into the Dirksen Federal Building Tuesday.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Former top city official William Helm pleaded not guilty Tuesday in a federal courtroom in Chicago to a charge that he offered a bribe to former state Sen. Martin Sandoval to help in a construction project.

Helm is an old-school political operative and former city deputy aviation commissioner whose name surfaced repeatedly in ongoing public corruption investigations until prosecutors charged him last week with offering a bribe to Sandoval.

During Helm’s arraignment before U.S. Magistrate Judge Sheila Finnegan, Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Stetler said there is a “substantial” amount of evidence in the case.

Though the two-page indictment filed against Helm is light on details, he is tied to multiple key players, including two already facing federal charges.

The indictment revolves around a construction company involved in a development project in far northwest suburban East Dundee in 2017. The company is not named in the indictment, but a source said it is owned by a member of the Palumbo family. The indictment does not accuse the company or its owners of wrongdoing.

Palumbo Brothers Inc. was once considered among the biggest road builders in Illinois. It was swept up in a federal investigation in the 1990s that put some members of the family behind bars.

Jennifer Johnsen, East Dundee’s village administrator, said the Palumbo family has been involved in a development project in the village through PAL Land LLC at Christina Drive and Route 72. That’s the site of Terra Business Park, managed by Palumbo Management LLC. Among the managers of both companies is Joseph Palumbo.

A message left seeking comment from the management company was not immediately returned Tuesday. Johnsen said she and Village President Lael Miller were subpoenaed by the FBI but were told they were not targets of the investigation.

The company featured in Helm’s indictment sought approval from the Illinois Department of Transportation in 2017 “for signalization and roadwork” and then retained Helm and his consulting company to help secure that approval. At the time, Sandoval served as head of the Senate’s transportation committee and “was in a position to assist,” according to the indictment.

Helm allegedly offered to bribe Sandoval with an unspecified amount of money to secure the IDOT approval, according to the indictment.

Sandoval has already pleaded guilty in a separate case and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. In his plea agreement, he admitted he had “accepted over $250,000 in bribes as part of criminal activity that involved more than five participants.”

Before his indictment, Helm’s name surfaced in search warrants relating to the feds’ public corruption investigations, including when the FBI searched Sandoval’s Springfield offices in September. His name surfaced again when the feds hit the tiny southwest suburb of McCook and the offices of its mayor, Jeff Tobolski, who is also a Cook County commissioner.

Tobolski resigned from both positions Friday, effective March 31.

A source said Helm and Tobolski “are very close, political allies.” Helm is also a longtime friend of Tobolski’s top county aide, Patrick Doherty.

The feds also charged Doherty last month with three bribery counts related to his work as a paid consultant for the red-light company SafeSpeed LLC. His indictment alleges he conspired in 2017 with another sales agent and someone with an interest in SafeSpeed to pay off a relative of an Oak Lawn trustee to support the installation of cameras.

Doherty’s attorneys said in a filing Monday the evidence turned over to them by the feds includes more than 6,000 audio files. SafeSpeed has denied any wrongdoing.

Helm also worked as a paid sales representative for SafeSpeed while on the city payroll, the Chicago Sun-Times has reported. The company paid him a commission on red-light tickets written in Matteson and Glendale Heights, records show.

Contributing: Robert Herguth and Mark Brown