FBI: Gardiner got developer who’d been ‘good to me’ ticket to Lightfoot reform inaugural in suspected bribery scheme

Ald. Jim Gardiner has not been charged with any criminal wrongdoing as a result of the feds’ investigation. FBI affidavits show the feds spent a year struggling to view thousands of text messages.

SHARE FBI: Gardiner got developer who’d been ‘good to me’ ticket to Lightfoot reform inaugural in suspected bribery scheme
Ald. James Gardiner (45th).

Ald. James Gardiner (45th).

Anthony Vazquez / Sun-Times

Four years ago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot got a standing ovation during her inaugural address when she lectured members of the new Chicago City Council about profiting from their office.

“Reform is here,” she declared.

It turns out a ticket to hear Lightfoot’s scolding might have become part of a lengthy FBI bribery investigation into one of the Council members on the stage that day: Ald. Jim Gardiner (45th).

According to court records, Gardiner provided a developer with a floor ticket to the event, and investigators took that as a sign that Gardiner felt “indebted” to that developer.

“Floor ticket,” Gardiner is said to have boasted in a text message.

That’s according to a series of FBI affidavits recently unsealed in redacted form that also suggest that the investigation of Gardiner was stymied by agents’ inability to view “the vast majority” of 4,000 text messages. The affidavits show they spent a year struggling to view the messages.

Gardiner has not been charged with any crime as a result of the investigation, which dates back more than three years.

He was reelected this year, unlike Lightfoot, who left office earlier this month.

Gardiner’s staff declined to comment.

The affidavits show that, even at a moment that seemed to signal a new day in Chicago politics, another potential scandal brewed in the background.

The Chicago Tribune reported earlier this month on one of the affidavits, filed in July 2020. Though heavily redacted, the records indicate authorities were looking into whether Gardiner took a $5,000 bribe from a developer to stall the Point at Six Corners. Authorities had developed a cooperating source in March 2020, the records say.

The July 2020 affidavit sought a judge’s permission to search an Apple iCloud account and seize text messages sent between February 2019 and July 2020. The iCloud account was described as being used by “a private Chicago businessman,” other affidavits show.

Those affidavits describe in part what happened next. Apple produced the information sought by authorities in an encrypted format in August 2020, the records show. That data was first sent to a unit at FBI headquarters to be decrypted, then sent back to the Chicago FBI office and then to the FBI’s Regional Computer Forensics Laboratory to be analyzed and formatted. That process was completed in mid-October 2020.

The analysis found that someone used that iCloud account to send or receive about 4,000 messages between February 2019 and July 2020, but, “due to an unexplained technological problem,” agents were not able to view “the vast majority” of them.

Agents spent the next eight months trying to determine why the messages could not be viewed. A prosecutor consulted with the Justice Department’s Computer Crimes and Intellectual Property Section, and investigators tried giving the original encrypted data to the Regional Computer Forensics Laboratory in June 2021.

Then, “in a final attempt to decrypt,” the original data was sent to FBI headquarters. As of July 7, 2021, the messages still couldn’t be viewed, according to the affidavits.

Authorities eventually sought permission in August 2021 to search a cell phone in hopes of recovering the messages, telling a judge that “reasonably diligent efforts have failed to recover” them.

It’s not clear whether investigators ever saw the messages.

The investigation doesn’t appear to have led to any criminal charges.

Joseph Fitzpatrick, spokesman for Chicago’s U.S. attorney’s office, declined to comment.

Federal authorities also pointed in the affidavits to messages they had successfully recovered, saying the messages “significantly strengthened” probable cause in the case and corroborated their cooperating source “in several significant ways.”

They referred to “non-official” actions that Gardiner had allegedly taken and that were revealed by the messages which suggested that Gardiner felt “indebted” to the developer in the case. They called those actions “highly significant” because they took place in May 2019, around the time they suspected Gardiner had taken the $5,000 cash bribe.

In one text exchange, Gardiner offered that person a floor ticket “to what is believed to be the inauguration ceremony of the newly elected Chicago City Council members,” federal authorities said, because the developer had been “very very good” to him.

The affidavit says the text exchange occurred on May 19, 2020, but the context suggests the year was a typo. The cash payment was described as having occurred in May 2019. A footnote points to May 19, 2019. And the city held inaugural ceremonies featuring Lightfoot’s speech on May 20, 2019.

“I got u a floor ticket U have been very very good to me,” Gardiner wrote in a text, according to the court records. “If u want to go, go. If not, but let me know.”

The affidavits show the developer replied, “Ok I’m in[,] see you tomorrow,” and that Gardiner followed up with, “I put ticket inside yr door,” and then: “Floor ticket.”

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