Thursday, September 22, 2005

The Chicago Way: Feds root out "cash for trees" bribery scandal in City Forestry Department

So, we know from a past indictment that you can bribe your way into landscaping contracts for natural areas in the City of Chicago. Now, another indictment has been handed down, alleging that the "boss" of the City's Forestry Department took bribes to cut down trees! Here's the scoop:

Did scandal go to trees? City forestry boss charged in extortion

September 22, 2005

Not even trees were spared from the corruption at City Hall, federal authorities alleged Wednesday.When two healthy trees in Lincoln Park got in the way of a home builder, developers were allegedly told that city workers would take care of the problem for $5,000, according to court documents. The alleged scheme was stymied by outraged neighbors who awoke one morning in the summer of 2004 to find city crews lopping off branches.

In a criminal complaint filed Wednesday, prosecutors charged Bruno A. Bertucci, a retired boss in the forestry bureau of the city's Streets and Sanitation Department, with obstruction of justice for his role in the failed scheme.

Court records suggest that former city worker John "Quarters" Boyle, a central figure in the city's Hired Truck scandal, also was a go-to man for such mundane favors as tree removal. Boyle pleaded guilty to extorting bribes and was sentenced in August to 7 years in prison. He was not charged Wednesday.

The charges against Bertucci stemmed from conversation in February in which he allegedly told a city employee not to tell federal agents about the scheme, according to court records. Bertucci, 53, of Bridgeview, allegedly told an underling to lie to FBI agents investigating the alleged bribe. "All you do is stick to your story" that an alderman wanted the trees removed, Bertucci allegedly told the worker, according to court records. "You just stick to your story because there ain't no way they could prove anything."

The alderman, Vi Daley (43rd), said in an interview Wednesday that she had opposed cutting down the trees. Bertucci was a member of a political group run by Daniel Katalinic, a retired high-ranking Streets and Sanitation Department official, according to two former department workers. The group was allegedly one of many pro-Mayor Daley political street armies whose members performed campaign work in exchange for city jobs and promotions. Katalinic is cooperating with the federal corruption probe. He secretly recorded a conversation with Robert Sorich, the mayor's patronage chief, who allegedly played a central role in the hiring scheme.

According to court records, developers wanted two trees removed to make room for a driveway between 1905 and 1907 N. Burling St., but they could not obtain city permits. They turned to Boyle, who agreed to pay a $5,000 bribe to a person identified in the complaint only as "a former high-ranking [city] employee."That employee contacted Bertucci, who, for half the $5,000, agreed to contact another city forestry bureau worker to cut down the trees, the records show.

That city worker took a crew out to the property at 7:42 a.m. on July 21, 2004, to cut down the trees. Dr. Alan Buchman, a gastroenterologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, said that when he returned home from work late one night, he noticed that Streets and Sanitation workers had posted signs informing neighbors to remove their cars from the block in the morning. Buchman got up early the next morning to find city crews on the street and a tow truck preparing to remove cars. The tow truck driver told Buchman the crews were there to cut down the two trees across the street. Buchman said he called his lawyer, city forestry and then called Ald. Daley. "I said to her, `You know, there's got to be some kind of conspiracy,'" Buchman said. "I was semi-serious. I was not joking."

Another neighbor who complained about the attempted tree removal was Donna Filippo, who lives at 1909 N. Burling. Filippo said she became annoyed when she saw a city crew beginning to cut off the top of one of the trees. When she confronted the workers, one of them told her that the woman who lived in 1907 had asked that the tree be removed because its roots were blocking the storm drain. Filippo said she told the man he was nuts because 1907 was vacant. Filippo went inside her house and called the city's 311 city-services number to complain. The crew left several minutes later, but Filippo said she believes it was Buchman's intervention that halted the work.

John McNaughton, who developed the homes along with Tinkers Development president Pamela Hostert, said Wednesday that he had done nothing wrong. He said he was unaware of allegations that someone offered a $5,000 bribe to city workers to get the job done."I don't know anything about that," McNaughton said. "We have been going through the regular process with the city to get the trees removed."

Bertucci is the 33rd person charged in the City Hall corruption probe. He faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. He was released on his promise to appear in court. He is due back in court on Oct. 3.

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