Former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s deputy chief of staff admitted in court Tuesday that he cashed more than 150 large charity checks at a Chinatown restaurant then kept part of the money for himself.
Gene Lee — a 65-year-old Chinatown community leader who for years was an aide to Daley — misused donations from major Chicago-area businesses including Comcast and McDonald’s, that were meant to be spent on Chinatown’s annual summer fair, he admitted.
Pleading guilty to embezzlement and tax fraud, a contrite Lee repeated the phrase “Yes, your honor” dozens of time as he indicated to Judge John Darrah that he understood his rights and acknowledged that he cashed 161 charity checks worth a total of $132,000 at the unnamed restaurant.
Though the exact amount Lee used for his own benefit is disputed, prosecutors say that in a single year, 2008, he took more than $26,000 of the $38,000 donated to his charity, the Chicago Dragons, and used it for himself.
And Lee admitted he hid the true size of donations given by Home Depot and Western Union from the accountant of another charity he headed, the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, and that he failed to report a $10,000 donation from McDonald’s, a $5,000 donation from ComEd and a $3,500 donation from Nielsen Media.
Only a portion of the donations received in 2007 and 2008 were used for their intended purpose of funding a basketball tournament and traditional dance events at the summer fair.
Lee declined to comment as he left court Tuesday, but his attorney, Anthony Masciopinto, argued Monday that Lee had spent the funds on legitimate charity expenses including gas and a business suit, and that his only true crime was failing to get good legal advice at the time.
Masciopinto refused to say whether Lee is currently serving on the boards of any Chinatown charities but said Lee had been “very active in the community his whole life” and would continue to be so.
Lee faces up to 13 years behind bars and a $500,000 fine when he is sentenced in August, though federal sentencing guidelines suggest a sentence of up to three years is more appropriate. Masciopinto said he plans to argue for probation.