When Vahooman Mirkhaef was looking to buy the state-owned property next door to his logistics company in McCook, federal prosecutors said the town’s mayor suggested he reach out to the head of the state Senate’s Transportation Committee, south suburban Sen. Martin Sandoval.
At a sentencing hearing Tuesday, federal prosecutors also said that the then-mayor of McCook, Jeffrey Tobolski, each year hosted a Christmas party at his house where local businessmen were expected to pile cash in a basket, and Mirkhaef, nicknamed “Shadow,” was among those who pitched in.
Mirkhaef reached out to Sandoval, and, in exchange for a $15,000 bribe, the influential senator was able to expedite the sale of the land, which Mirkhaef purchased as sole bidder at a state auction.
In McCook back in 2019, before a wave of indictments against public officials across the state, “corruption was pretty rampant and I think any business owner was potentially a target,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney James Durkin. Mirkhaef was an easy mark for predatory politicians in the south suburbs, Durkin said, by way of arguing that the businessman deserved a light sentence after cooperating with investigators against Sandoval, Tobolski and a Tobolski aide, Patrick Doherty. Tobolski and Doherty were identified as “Public Official A” and “Public Employee A” in Mirkhaef’s plea agreement, but Durkin and Mirkhaef’s attorney, Sergio Acosta, referred to them by name throughout Tuesday’s hearing.
Grudgingly, U.S. District Judge Mary M. Rowland agreed with the assessment, handing Mirkhaef a sentence of two years of probation on charges he paid off Sandoval, who died of COVID complications not long after he pleaded guilty to bribery and extortion charges in 2020.
Mirkhaef’s sentence also includes 200 hours of community service and a $40,000 fine.
“I do so wish I had the public official here,” Rowland said later, before handing down her sentence. “I don’t want to take my anger at the public official out on the defendant.”
His head bowed, Mirkhaef sobbed as he addressed the judge, noting that he was now caring for his dying father, who fled to the U.S. from Iran after the fall of the Shah and supported his family as a restaurant owner.
“He’s in hospice now ... he has no idea what’s going on,” Mirkhaef said, pausing for a ragged breath. “He would really have been disappointed. I can’t tell you truly how hard it is to sit down in your living room with your family and try to explain to your kids what you’ve done.”
Not long after closing the sale in 2019, Sandoval turned up at Mirkhaef’s logistics business, Cub Terminal, to make sure he’d be paid.
FBI agents arrived at Cub Terminal soon after, and Mirkhaef almost immediately agreed to cooperate against Sandoval as well Tobolski and Doherty, Durkin said.
Tobolski in 2020 pleaded guilty to extortion and tax evasion charges and agreed to cooperate with the apparently wide-ranging investigation into corruption in the south suburbs and Legislature. Doherty pleaded guilty to similar charges earlier this month in a case Durkin said was aided by evidence provided by Mirkhaef.
Sandoval died months after he pleaded guilty to taking more than $250,000 from business owners and a red-light camera company.
Durkin described Mirkhaef as a basically decent man, noting the bribes that Mirkhaef paid Tobolski were essentially a cost of doing business in McCook.
Tobolski, who was both mayor of the suburb and a member of the Cook County Board, held a Christmas party at his house each year for business owners who, like Mirkhaef, “would throw some cash into a basket in Mr. Tobolski’s home.”
The gift got Mirkhaef benefits such as a break from village inspectors — who allowed Mirkhaef to stack massive containers on his property higher than local ordinances allowed — and prevented Tobolski from interfering in the business, Durkin said.
Rowland repeatedly voiced her disgust with public corruption and seemed torn over whether to send Mirkhaef to prison. Prosecutors had suggested a term of 14 months, well below the sentence of more than two years proscribed by federal guidelines.
“If you’re in a kind of place where these kind of payments are expected to have your business function, then you go to the Christmas party and you put the money in the basket. And that’s just a sickness in the local community,” Rowland said, shaking her head.
“You can’t do it [pay off public officials], and it’s illegal to do it. But this is what’s expected [by] the local authorities.”