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Ex-state Sen. Martin Sandoval, snared in political corruption investigation, dies of coronavirus: attorney

Sandoval became a key player in the feds’ ongoing public corruption investigations. He pleaded guilty to bribery in a red-light camera case earlier this year but agreed to cooperate.

Martin Sandoval, walks out of the Everett M. Dirksen U.S. Courthouse after his arraignment hearing, Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020, in Chicago.
Martin Sandoval, walks out of the Everett M. Dirksen U.S. Courthouse after his arraignment hearing, Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020, in Chicago.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Former state Sen. Martin Sandoval, who became a crucial figure in a series of ongoing public corruption investigations early this year when he admitted he’d taken hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes, has died from COVID-19, according to his defense attorney.

The Senate’s former transportation chair also agreed in January to “cooperate in any matter in which he is called upon” by federal prosecutors in Chicago. Late last month, the feds told a judge Sandoval had “provided valuable cooperation that is expected to last at least several more months.”

Now, legal experts say Sandoval’s death has the potential to complicate the feds’ aggressive probe of Illinois politics.

Still, the implications of his death — caused by a pandemic that took hold only weeks after his guilty plea — may not be fully understood for some time.

Dylan Smith, the attorney who represented Sandoval in his federal criminal case, confirmed Sandoval’s death for the Chicago Sun-Times. Sandoval, 56, died Saturday morning, according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office.

“I was proud to have represented Martin Sandoval,” Smith told the Sun-Times. “He was someone of considerable ability who had done a great deal of good in his life and someone who was working very hard to make amends for his mistakes and, in his own way, doing what he could through his cooperation with the government to contribute to their efforts to clean up things in Springfield.

“And I know he was sincerely remorseful for having strayed from his own standards, and he was someone who loved his family tremendously, and right now they are in my thoughts and I would hope and ask the members of the press and the larger public to respect their privacy as they mourn at this time.”

In pleading guilty in January, Sandoval admitted he took a “protector fee” from someone with an interest in the politically connected red-light camera company SafeSpeed, insisting he’d “go balls to the walls for anything you ask me.” But he also admitted he’d engaged in corrupt activity with other public officials and accepted over $250,000 “in bribes as part of criminal activity that involved more than five participants.”

SafeSpeed has not been charged with wrongdoing and has denounced “a person who had an interest in the company, who was not authorized by the company to engage in any illegal behavior or make any commitments or contributions on behalf of the company or its executives.” Former SafeSpeed partner Omar Maani has been charged with bribery conspiracy but entered into a so-called deferred-prosecution agreement with the feds.

In March, federal prosecutors filed an indictment against political operative William A. Helm, alleging he had bribed Sandoval in 2018. Sandoval’s name has also surfaced amid the burgeoning investigation of ComEd, which was charged with bribery in July but also entered into a deferred-prosecution agreement. A subpoena delivered to House Speaker Michael Madigan’s office that month also mentioned Sandoval.

Before his name emerged in the federal probe, Sandoval made national news in 2019 when social media posts showed a man at his political fundraiser pretending to shoot someone wearing a Donald Trump mask.

Former federal prosecutor Jeffrey Cramer told the Sun-Times the death of a crucial witness like Sandoval has the potential to create “all sorts of problems for the prosecutor as far as admissibility of evidence.” For example, previous testimony would largely not be admissible if it was not subject to cross-examination, he said. And recordings would need to be authenticated.

A witness like Sandoval can also serve as “a guide to the evidence,” explaining to jurors how something worked, said Cramer, now managing director in Chicago of Berkeley Research Group. But he said prosecutors could still present a compelling case without such a witness.

Former state Sen. Martin Sandoval, pictured in Springfield in June 2019.
Former state Sen. Martin Sandoval, pictured in Springfield in June 2019.
AP Photos

Sandoval was a 1982 graduate of Quigley South seminary, where he was a classmate of Tony Munoz, his future colleague in the state Senate, and Victor Reyes, who became Mayor Richard M. Daley’s director of intergovernmental affairs. Sandoval would later become an important ally of Munoz and Reyes in the Hispanic Democratic Organization, one of Daley’s key political support groups.

After the 2000 redistricting created two new Senate seats for Latinos — one on the Northwest Side and the other on the Southwest — Sandoval was elected from the Southwest Side district in 2002.

Over the years, Sandoval also put his considerable political weight and intellect behind initiatives benefiting the Latino community, immigrants, low-income residents and other vulnerable populations, according to immigration advocate Joshua Hoyt.

“He pushed a lot of things that weren’t flashy, but which made a difference,” said Hoyt, who dealt with Sandoval in the mid-2000s when Hoyt was director of the Illinois Coalition of Immigrant and Refugee Rights.

Some of those unflashy things championed by the physically imposing and irreverently funny ex-state senator included naturalization and workplace protections for immigrants, Hoyt said.

“He was a big man and he had a big personality, and he would use it to push for what he wanted,” Hoyt said. “He made some tragic mistakes, and some of those are the temptations of politics which have tripped up people all over the place . . . People can make tragic mistakes and also contribute a lot of good in the world. I think Marty contributed a lot of good in the world.”

Contributing: Robert Herguth and Tim Novak