Antionette Chenier was only a low-level City Hall clerk.
But the Chicago Department of Transportation worker allegedly pulled off a stunningly brazen scam that netted her nearly three-quarters of a million dollars of taxpayer money.
Embezzling $25 to $200 at a time, Chenier, 50, took hundreds of checks that Chicagoans wrote for permits to park moving vans and dumpsters on city streets since 2008, then deposited them into her own accounts, a federal complaint unsealed Wednesday alleges.
It allegedly snagged her $741,000 — a hefty sum for a worker whose salary was just $60,000 a year.
But what ranks as one of the Chicago area’s largest sustained petty government frauds — since tollway worker John “Quarters” Boyle stole millions of dollars in state tollway change — went undetected for six years.
It wasn’t until January, when Charter One bank staff noticed the unusual activity on one of Chenier’s accounts and froze it, that she was rumbled by the FBI, the IRS and Chicago’s Inspector General, the complaint states.
City officials did not respond to questions about why it took so long to uncover such a simple ruse, or how Chenier was able to live in south suburban Homewood, in apparent contravention of city hiring rules.
A CDOT spokesman called the alleged embezzlement “completely unacceptable” and said the department was working to improve its security measures. CDOT has a Chicago home address on file for Chenier.
The sobbing Chenier seemed as unsophisticated as her alleged scheme when she made a brief appearance before U.S. Magistrate Judge Sheila Finnegan Wednesday afternoon, doubling over in shock as Finnegan warned her she faces up to 10 years behind bars and a $250,000 fine if convicted.
Public records show Chenier, who has worked for the city since 1993, had a history of money problems. She twice filed for bankruptcy in the 1990s, and had a number of liens filed against her.
An account given in the complaint of her unmasking by a Charter One bank employee earlier this year hardly suggests a criminal mastermind.
Chenier, who was arrested early Wednesday morning at her home and later freed on her own recognizance, had opened a bank account called “OEMC Chenier,” in which she deposited permit checks made payable to the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communication, according to the complaint.
But when quizzed by the bank worker about the deposits, she allegedly claimed they were “all fine.”
Asked if the check makers would have the same response, she allegedly then told the bank worker, “Please don’t call the check makers, I will lose my job.”
She told the banker she’d be willing to pay back the money and asked the banker “not to report this,” then claimed that her intent in opening the account was to start a cleaning business named “Office of Emergency Management and Cleaning” but that the business had failed, the complaint alleges.
When the banker then told her that her actions could be construed as embezzling, she allegedly responded, “Please don’t use those words.”