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Ex-Cook County Commissioner Jeffrey Tobolski charged in extortion conspiracy as federal drumbeat continues

A charging document filed against Tobolski, who is also the former mayor of McCook, suggests he will plead guilty.

Cook County Commissioner Jeffrey Tobolski gets on an elevator to leave the County Building in 2019. 
Cook County Commissioner Jeffrey Tobolski in December 2019. 
Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Sun-Times

Federal prosecutors filed long-anticipated criminal charges Friday against former Cook County Commissioner Jeffrey Tobolski, accusing him of a conspiracy to commit extortion.

The feds also accused Tobolski of filing a false income tax return for the year 2018. They said he claimed his income was $214,270 when he “knew that the total income substantially exceeded that amount.”

The conspiracy charge alleges that Tobolski conspired with an unnamed “McCook Official A” to extort money from an unnamed “Individual A.”

The charges against Tobolski appeared in a document known as an information, which typically signals a defendant intends to plead guilty. Tobolski’s defense attorney, James Vanzant, declined to comment.

Tobolski resigned in March from his posts on the Cook County Board and in McCook, where he’d been mayor, months after federal agents searched his offices at McCook’s Village Hall. Agents also seized $55,205 in cash from Tobolski’s home at that time, including $51,611 taken “from within a safe,” according to records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times.

The tiny but politically influential Village of McCook, the southwest suburb where Jeffrey Tobolski had been mayor.
The tiny but politically influential Village of McCook, the southwest suburb where Jeffrey Tobolski had been mayor.
Village of McCook

In their raid on Tobolski’s mayoral office in McCook — part of a broader September 2019 sweep of the southwest suburbs — agents sought items related to several individuals and businesses. They also sought items related to a Latino Night at a McCook-owned sports facility known as the Max; Chicago Cubs spring training trips; heating and air conditioning at Tobolski’s home; and benefits provided by an unnamed law firm and attorney.

Additionally, they sought “items related to any official action taken in exchange for a benefit.”

A source said the federal southwest suburban sweep was related to raids that took place days earlier on the home and offices of then-state Sen. Martin Sandoval, including his office at the state Capitol in Springfield. Among the records taken from Sandoval’s office were documents from Burke Burns & Pinelli, at the time the law firm of state Senate President Don Harmon.

Former state Sen. Martin Sandoval, shown leaving the federal courthouse early last year.
Former state Sen. Martin Sandoval, shown earlier this year leaving the federal courthouse.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times file.

A subpoena served on McCook in September 2019 also mentioned Burke Burns & Pinelli, records show.

Harmon stepped down from his law firm after succeeding John Cullerton as Senate president in January. One of Harmon’s partners said in January the firm had not been contacted about the Sandoval investigation. Harmon has suggested Sandoval had a habit of keeping files on political opponents.

Sandoval pleaded guilty in January to corruption charges and agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors. His plea agreement said he “engaged in corrupt activities with other public officials” and took more than $250,000 “in bribes as part of criminal activity that involved more than five participants.”

Back in February, federal prosecutors charged Tobolski’s onetime county chief of staff, Patrick Doherty, with three bribery charges in a seven-page indictment. The indictment did not revolve around Doherty’s work for the county but rather his role as a paid consultant for the politically connected red-light camera company SafeSpeed, LLC.

Patrick Doherty, the former county government chief of staff to Jeffrey Tobolski.
Patrick Doherty, the former county government chief of staff to Jeffrey Tobolski.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Sandoval has admitted to accepting bribes to block legislation in the General Assembly that would have harmed SafeSpeed’s income, though the company has denied any wrongdoing.

Bill Helm, another now-former SafeSpeed salesman tasked with getting municipalities to use the company’s red-light systems in exchange for potentially lucrative commissions, has been charged in a separate scheme. He’s a longtime associate of Doherty and political ally of Tobolski.

Tobolski was known to enjoy socializing and, for a time, was a regular at a Countryside cigar lounge that was frequented by political players in get-togethers presided over by Omar Maani, a SafeSpeed partner now believed to be cooperating with federal authorities. Among others who’d visit the Casa De Montecristo: Cicero Town President Larry Dominick and Lyons Mayor Chris Getty.

The Countryside cigar lounge that for a time was frequented by Jeffrey Tobolski and numerous other political figures.
The Countryside cigar lounge that for a time was frequented by Jeffrey Tobolski and numerous other political figures.
Rick Majewski / For the Sun-Times

Tobolski threw a campaign fundraiser for Cullerton at the cigar shop, which has donated more than $50,000 in recent years to different political organizations, according to records and interviews.

Tobolski has dug into his own campaign fund to pay for lawyers since the McCook raid. The total so far: More than $400,000 spent on two law firms, according to Illinois State Board of Elections records.

His campaign account is now thoroughly drained, registering a negative balance.

Records showing Jeffrey Tobolski’s campaign fund with a negative balance, after huge spending on legal fees.
Records showing Jeffrey Tobolski’s campaign fund with a negative balance, after huge spending on legal fees.
Illinois State Board of Elections

Four days after the raid, Tobolski and his wife closed on the purchase of a two-bedroom condo in Nashville, according to Tennessee property records that put the sales price at just over $130,000.

Doherty acknowledged last fall being questioned by FBI and IRS agents the same day as the McCook raid about a different business run by Maani that received taxpayer money through county government — with Tobolski’s support — to build housing for low-income residents in Summit and Cicero.

Omar Maani, a now-former SafeSpeed partner whose other company developed affordable housing in Summit and Cicero after securing taxpayer money with Jeffrey Tobolski’s help.
Omar Maani, a now-former SafeSpeed partner whose other company developed affordable housing in Summit and Cicero after securing taxpayer money with Jeffrey Tobolski’s help.
Screen grab from SafeSpeed, LLC video

“They did come in the door because they had a relationship with the commissioner,” a government official familiar with the housing deal said of Maani’s other company, Presidio Capital LLC. “Tobolski and Doherty were definitely big proponents of the project . . . not inappropriate but probably a little bit heavy in their level of involvement.”

The charges against Tobolski are the latest in a series of ongoing public corruption investigations that appear to again be picking up steam.

Last month, the feds filed bribery charges against the utility company ComEd. The case against ComEd implicated Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, though Madigan has not been charged with a crime, and he denies wrongdoing.

Federal authorities filed charges earlier this month against state Sen. Terry Link, who was hit with an income tax case, and Crestwood Mayor Louis Presta, who is accused in a bribery scheme tied to SafeSpeed.

The day after the news broke about Presta, his campaign sent out invitations for a golf-themed political fundraiser at a south suburban country club. The invite declares: “Presta for Mayor 2021.”

An organizer said nobody has canceled, and the event is slated to go ahead.