Gambling, construction, red-light cameras and a smoke-filled room: Here’s what’s in the feds’ unredacted search warrant
The 11-page document stems from the federal raid of state Sen. Martin Sandoval’s Capitol office on Sept. 24.
It reads like a federal checklist for Chicago corruption.
Gambling. Construction. Red-light cameras. A smoke-filled room.
But an 11-page document released mostly without redactions by state officials Friday also offers the most comprehensive look yet at the wide swath federal investigators seem to be cutting in the ongoing corruption probe that has captivated Chicago — one that appears to touch on active matters in Illinois politics.
The document stems from the federal raid of state Sen. Martin Sandoval’s Capitol office on Sept. 24.
Three months after the state’s expansion of gambling, the document reveals federal interest in a video gambling operator who is now seeking approval for a harness-racing casino venture in the southwest suburbs. That’s in addition to the feds’ previously known interest in Sandoval, who was instrumental in passage of the state’s $45 billion capital project legislation.
Also named is Cesar Santoy, an appointee of Gov. J.B. Pritzker to the Illinois Tollway Board who complied with a request from the governor Friday to step down. Asphalt magnate Michael Vondra also gets a mention. So does ComEd, which has received multiple federal subpoenas.
And then there’s a key player from the last decade’s statewide political scandal: John Harris, onetime chief of staff to former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who is still stuck in a federal prison in Colorado.
Finally, the document confirms the feds are looking into the politically connected red-light camera company SafeSpeed, LLC, and are curious about a cigar lounge in Countryside that appears to be the Casa De Montecristo, identified by the Sun-Times earlier this week.
Those are all among the 19 individuals and 20 entities named in the search warrant document. It also refers to several other unnamed people, businesses, municipalities, lobbyists and political organizations, as well as a person cooperating with the federal investigation.
Senate Democrats previously released a redacted version of the document. But Friday, they lifted most of the redactions, claiming the U.S. Attorney’s office no longer opposed its release.
Though the document could be seen as a roadmap of the federal investigation, it’s still not clear where authorities plan to take the probe — or what the document means for the 19 individuals specifically named. Also not clear is how, if at all, this investigation fits into other ongoing matters, such as those that led earlier this year to charges against Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th) and state Sen. Thomas Cullerton, as well as raids on the offices of Ald. Carrie Austin (34th).
Only a few of the 19 individuals named in the document agreed to comment. Others couldn’t be reached.
Here’s a look at what the feds are interested in:
Rick Heidner and Gold Rush Gaming: Heidner has been part of the state’s video gambling industry since 2012. He is now involved in Playing in the Park LLC, which received its racing license from the Illinois Racing Board on Sept. 24 — the same day as the Springfield raid.
Heidner’s Gold Rush Amusements Inc., which has placed thousands of machines in bars, restaurants and other establishments statewide, has given $11,500 to Sandoval’s campaign since 2015, most recently with a $5,000 contribution reported Aug. 13, according to the Illinois State Board of Elections. Gold Rush also contributed $1,000 last year to the campaign of Sandoval’s daughter, Angie Sandoval, who ran unsuccessfully for the Cook County Board of Commissioners.
Heidner told the Sun-Times by phone that no authorities had contacted him about the search warrant, and he said he had “zero clue” why his name would be on it.
“Maybe it’s because, you know, I donate money politically and charitably,” Heidner said. “But I have no clue why my name would be on it at all.”
Mentioned with Heidner is Joe Elias, who runs about a dozen video gambling parlors around the state, all carrying Heidner’s gambling machines. Elias could not be reached for comment.
Bill Helm: The search warrant also mentions Helm, who until recently was a high-ranking Chicago Department of Aviation official who’s been at the center of an ongoing lawsuit accusing him and other city officials of injecting politics into the workplace at O’Hare Airport.
The 2018 federal suit, filed by two city truck drivers working at O’Hare, said they were “deprived of substantial overtime and preferred assignments and equipment” after refusing “to engage in forced political work for certain Democratic precincts on and off City time at the behest of” Helm and others.
The city’s inspector general’s office and the FBI were notified about the allegations, sources said.
Helm is part of former Ald. Patrick O’Connor’s North Side political operation, but O’Connor said recently he doesn’t know what’s going on with Helm, only that he stopped working for the city in recent months.
Reached on the phone earlier this week and asked whether he’s still with city government, and if he knows whether he’s a target of the ongoing federal probe, Helm said, “I retired in August, and I’ve got nothing to say on the second part of your question. ... Just let it play out.”
Helm — who formerly worked at the Illinois Department of Transportation and resigned after being accused of having 41 hours of personal conversations on his phone during work hours — wouldn’t say whether federal agents have approached him.
John Harris: Harris got a 10-day prison sentence in 2012 after federal prosecutors charged him with conspiring to help Blagojevich sell the U.S. Senate seat Barack Obama vacated when he was elected president. Harris ended up cooperating with federal prosecutors, testifying against Blagojevich.
Harris, according to his LinkedIn profile, is president of Southwind Industries, the parent company that oversees Vondra’s empire. Before he joined Blagojevich’s staff, Harris, 57, of Chicago, served as budget director for former Mayor Richard M. Daley.
Harris declined to comment on the search warrant.
“A Countryside cigar lounge”: The Sun-Times previously identified the cigar lounge listed in the Sandoval search warrant as Casa De Montecristo, a swanky establishment frequented by SafeSpeed partner Omar Maani and numerous public officials, including Cook County Commissioner Jeff Tobolski and Cicero Town President Larry Dominick.
Tobolski, who doubles as the mayor of McCook and whose village offices were also raided by the feds last month, is also mentioned in the document released Friday.
Maani runs another company that’s built affordable housing in Summit and Cicero with taxpayer money. Federal agents questioned Summit Mayor Sergio Rodriquez about his town’s arrangement with SafeSpeed as well as the low-income housing deal, sources have said.
The political figures who have received campaign donations from the cigar lounge include Rodriguez, Dominick, Tobolski and Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, among others.
What’s more, a political fundraiser was hosted at the cigar lounge in 2013 for Cullerton — who said he recalls it was Helm who “probably organized it for me,” with Tobolski possibly being involved.
As for Maani or the cigar lounge’s owners, Cullerton said, “I wouldn’t know those guys.”
Cullerton’s office initially released the Sandoval search warrant with the reference to the lounge blacked out.
Burke, Burns & Pinelli: Also seized in the Sandoval raid were “documents from Burke Burns law firm,” records show.
That clout-heavy firm represents numerous government agencies in the Chicago region, including the Village of Lyons, where the mayor is Chris Getty. The Lyons village hall and Getty’s private insurance offices were visited Sept. 26 by federal agents.
A partner at the firm is state Sen. Don Harmon, and other attorneys there have donated thousands of dollars over the years to campaigns affiliated with Illinois House Speaker Michael J. Madigan. Neither Harmon nor others at the firm could be reached for comment Friday.
Cesar Santoy: Pritzker in February appointed a new Illinois Tollway board that included Santoy, a Berwyn alderman. The governor said his appointees heralded a “new day for the Illinois Tollway” — an entity previously plagued with controversies.
But Friday, Pritzker called for Santoy’s resignation. And Santoy complied.
“The first thing I would say is that corruption and self-dealing are not acceptable and will be rooted out, whether it’s in my administration or in the legislature,” Pritzker said at an unrelated press conference in Chicago. “From my perspective, Cesar Santoy should step aside from his position on the Tollway board.”
The governor added: “It’s important for us to make sure that there is no cloud that is carried over any of the work that gets done at the Tollway.”
Santoy’s attorney said he’d been told Santoy is not a target of the feds’ investigation. He said Santoy cooperated with a request from the feds for “communications” and hopes to return to the board once things are cleared up.
The governor said Santoy’s vetting “didn’t show any flags.”
A “flash drive with Landek written on it”: That’s among the items seized from Sandoval’s Capitol office, the document reveals.
A Sandoval colleague, state Sen. Steve Landek is a Democrat from Bridgeview where he’s also the mayor and the Democratic committeeman of Lyons Township.
While he has political and personal relationships with many of the people caught up in this investigation, his name has not until now publicly surfaced.
Landek told the Sun-Times he briefly shared a legislative assistant with Sandoval, so he surmises the flash drive was related to that person’s job, perhaps for making office payments or related to legislation.
“No one’s talked to me about that, and I assume that’s what it’s about,” Landek said.
Contributing: Mark Brown, Tim Novak, Lauren FitzPatrick, Rachel Hinton