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Inspector general implicates indicted ex-O’Hare official in a second bribery scheme

Secret report to city of Chicago officials also got William A. Helm put on don’t-rehire list and urged that Sloan Valve Company be banned from getting any city business.

William A. Helm leaving the Dirksen Federal Courthouse on March 10 after pleading not guilty to a bribery indictment.
William A. Helm leaving the Dirksen Federal Courthouse on March 10 after pleading not guilty to a bribery indictment.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Sun-Times

A former top city of Chicago airport official who has been indicted for bribery in connection with a northwest suburban road project was involved in a separate bribery scheme involving a plumbing company seeking business at O’Hare Airport, City Hall’s inspector general has found.

Sloan Valve Company — a Franklin Park business whose plumbing fixtures are a mainstay in commercial bathrooms across the country — was hired to install its combination sink, faucet, soap dispenser and hand dryer throughout O’Hare’s terminals after plying former Deputy Aviation Commissioner William A. Helm and others with more than $20,000 in meals, beverages, golf outings, sports tickets and free trips to see the Cubs at spring training in Arizona, according to a report City Hall received from Inspector General Joseph Ferguson in late December.

Ferguson recommended that Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s Department of Procurement ban Sloan Valve from ever getting any more city business — a proposed sanction the company is fighting.

“Sloan found a hole in the fabric of the city’s procurement processes and ripped it open to gain access and preferential treatment in O’Hare International Airport that its competitors did not share,” the inspector general’s report says, naming Sloan co-owner Charles “Kirk” Allen Jr. and his friend and former employee Daniel Sturch.

Sloan and company officials haven’t been charged with any crime.

Asked about the report, Sloan responded with a written statement disputing the inspector general’s findings, declining to address specifics.

“For over 114 years, Sloan has been proud to call Chicago home and has conducted business with the highest integrity as an honest and trusted American manufacturer; we vigorously dispute any suggestion to the contrary,” the company said in a written statement. “We care deeply about our employees, our customers and valued partners, the city of Chicago and our good name. We will, of course, cooperate with any official inquiries, but this is not the appropriate time or forum to address these matters.”

Sloan doesn’t have a contract with the city. Instead, it supplies fixtures to plumbing companies hired by City Hall. It’s unclear how many sinks the company has supplied or how much it’s been paid.

City officials won’t discuss the inspector general’s two-year investigation, which was prompted by allegations that Helm took money from airport truck drivers seeking overtime while pressuring them to do political work for former Ald. Patrick O’Connor (40th).

Under Illinois law, Ferguson’s 87-page report isn’t available to the public, but a source provided a copy and other documents to the Chicago Sun-Times.

On March 5, a federal grand jury indicted Helm, a longtime Chicago Democratic political operative, accusing him of bribing former state Sen. Martin Sandoval, D-Chicago, in 2018 regarding a state road project in East Dundee.

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 A. Helm.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Sun-Times file

Helm — who has pleaded not guilty — retired as deputy city aviation commissioner on Aug. 16, 2019. That was five days before he was set to be interviewed by the inspector general’s office about Sloan and the allegations involving the truck drivers.

He hasn’t been charged with any crime in connection with the plumbing work or the truck drivers.

“I will tell you that Mr. Helm was never provided free trips to Arizona or anywhere else,” Helm’s attorney Timothy Grace says. “Mr. Helm has never been charged with any issues involving O’Hare Airport. Mr. Helm faithfully worked for the citizens of Chicago and the greater Chicago area, and we have no control over what people say who are trying to deflect some of their own problems and questionable behavior.”

Helm didn’t disclose any of the gifts the inspector general’s report cites on his ethics disclosures to City Hall. The city’s ethics code bars employees from receiving gifts worth more than $250. The aviation department bars its employees from taking any gifts.

Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration hired Helm, a former state employee, in 2014 as a deputy aviation commissioner overseeing airport truck drivers.

Sturch — who was Sloan’s account manager when the inspector general said the scheme began and later was president of one of its largest distributors — “cultivated a relationship with Helm,” who had no direct authority over city purchasing contracts at O’Hare, the inspector general found. Sturch told the inspector general that Helm, a longtime family friend, introduced him to other airport officials, including then-chief operating officer Jonathan Leach and Joseph Alesia.

“It is no coincidence that while Sloan’s [sinks with soap dispensers and hand dryers] were being installed . . . Sturch was providing Helm and Leach free trips to Cubs spring trainings in Arizona,” the inspector general’s report says. “In concise terms, Sloan through Sturch bribed both Helm and Leach.”

Sloan Valve Company was hired to install its combination sink, faucet, soap dispenser and hand dryer throughout O’Hare Airport’s terminals.
Sloan Valve Company was hired to install its combination sink, faucet, soap dispenser and hand dryer throughout O’Hare Airport’s terminals.

Sturch told the inspector general’s staff that Helm and Leach attended spring training in 2016 while they were working for the city. Leach, who left the aviation department in July 2017, went to spring training with Helm in 2018 on Sloan’s tab, according to the inspector general’s report.

Leach says he never took any gifts from Sloan while he was a city employee.

Leach is now an attorney with Chico & Nunes, the clout-heavy Chicago law firm of senior partner Gery Chico, a onetime chief of staff to then-Mayor Richard M. Daley who also was president of the Chicago Board of Education and has run unsuccessfully for mayor and the U.S. Senate.

“During my employment with the city of Chicago, I was never offered, nor accepted, any trips to Cubs spring trainings in Arizona, or any other trips, or meals, from Sloan Valve, any of its employees, or Sturch,” Leach says. “Any claim to the contrary, regardless who makes it, is completely false. I have not been contacted by any authorities regarding Sloan Valve and am only aware of this inspector general report by virtue of your inquiry.”

According to the inspector general’s report, Sturch arranged a golf outing at Medinah Country Club on Aug. 13, 2016, for Helm and others, including then-Ald. Michael Zalewski (23rd), who was chairman of the Chicago City Council Aviation Committee, and Patrick Doherty, then-chief of staff to Jeffrey Tobolski, the now-indicted former Cook County commissioner and mayor of McCook.

Doherty was indicted on bribery charges in February in connection with his work as a paid consultant for the red-light-camera company SafeSpeed LLC.

On Tuesday, Tobolski pleaded guilty to filing a false income-tax return and taking more than $250,000 in bribes that included shaking down a restaurant owner in McCook.

Ferguson’s investigators also found that Sloan — a sponsor of the Cubs that paid for the naming rights for the team’s Sloan Park spring-training home in Mesa, Arizona — let Helm choose who would throw out the first pitch when the Cubs played the Pittsburgh Pirates at Wrigley Field on Sept. 25, 2015.

“Dan, the first pitch will be thrown out by Cicero Town President Larry Dominick. So the passes will be for Larry Dominick and his chief of staff. Jeff Tobolski and his chief of staff (Doherty) and you and I. Total-6,” Helm wrote in an email to Sturch, who said he needed to know so Dominick’s name could be displayed on the scoreboard.

As a result of Ferguson’s investigation, City Hall has placed Helm on a list of former city employees who can’t be rehired.

City Hall Inspector General Joseph Ferguson found that Joel Kennedy Constructing Corp. engaged in a “fraudulent scheme” involving four city contracts — including ordering some employees to lie that they live in Chicago so they could help meet a city residency requirement.
At the urging of Inspector General Joseph Ferguson, City Hall banned William A. Helm from being rehired for any city job and urged that Sloan Valve Company be barred from getting any city business.
Max Herman / Sun-Times file

And City Hall fired Nicholas Thome, a truck driver foreman at the airport, for “making false, inaccurate or deliberately incomplete statements.” According to the inspector general’s report: “Thome coerced subordinates to engage in political activity for Helm’s desired candidate in exchange for overtime opportunities and preferential treatment. Helm and Thome also solicited and received money from subordinates . . . purportedly for Helm’s personal trips and gifts.”

Thome calls the allegations “ridiculous” and is fighting to regain his job.

“I didn’t do anything wrong,” Thome says. “We did do politics but never on the clock. Nothing was ever done on airport property or time. He would have meetings at my house.”

Ferguson also recommended the city fire Alesia, an airport manager in terminal operations, and Kevin Martin, an airport manager in vehicle services. Alesia, whose attorney says he no longer works for the city, is now suing City Hall for harassment and retailiation. Martin remains on the city payroll.

Alesia, who also received tickets to sporting events from Sloan, has spoken to the FBI regarding Helm but refused to discuss that with the inspector general’s investigators, according to the report.

The report also says Alesia, Helm and Martin attempted to retaliate against a truck driver, Charles Termini, who had cooperated with the inspector general’s investigation.

Termini is now suing the city, saying he was wrongly written up for work-rule infractions three times in three weeks after being interviewed by the inspector general.