Clout, Corruption on Trial

Hiring fraud trial of former Streets & Sanitation commissioner begins

The hiring fraud trial of Chicago's former streets and sanitation commissioner got under way Wednesday with a federal prosecutor saying city jobs were illegally doled out to campaign workers at the expense of other applicants.

"The hiring and promotion process at City Hall was rigged -- it was corrupt," Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Grimes said in the government's opening statement.

Al Sanchez, 61, former commissioner of streets and sanitation, is charged with engaging in fraud to camouflage the fact that city jobs were given only to political workers, including those belonging to his Hispanic Democratic Organization.

Co-defendant Aaron Del Valle, 36, a former city employee, is charged with lying to a federal grand jury investigating the alleged hiring fraud.

The trial is the second in the last two and a half years of former city officials for allegedly engaging in fraud to cover up violations of a 30-year-old court decree barring politics as the basis for filling most city payroll jobs.

Robert Sorich was a key official in the office of intergovernmental affairs but was known at City Hall as Mayor Richard M. Daley's patronage chief. He and three other former officials were convicted at the first patronage trial in July 2006.

The so-called Shakman Decree bars patronage as the basis for city jobs but critics of City Hall say it has been all but ignored for decades. A court-appointed monitor now oversees city hiring and firing.

Patronage -- the practice of giving city jobs to the mayor's political supporters -- is a deeply rooted Chicago tradition and has hung on despite numerous challenges.

Grimes told jurors that hiring at City Hall was "a sham process" and that Sanchez had been a key part of it.

"He traded city jobs for political work and in doing that he corrupted the hiring process on many levels," he said. The monthlong trial would "show that Al Sanchez was the key person behind the curtain -- pulling the strings."

Defense attorney Todd Pugh said Grimes made too much of the goings-on at City Hall and failed to focus on the city streets where Sanchez gave "30 years of absolutely undying, beyond the call, honest services" to the city and its people.

He told how Sanchez had been born in "Slag Valley" on Chicago's Southeast Side "in the shadow of the steel mills," was the first in his family to finish high school, served in Vietnam and worked his way to the top in the city's biggest department, starting with mean grunt work such as "rat patrol" in the back alleys.

Officials in the office of Intergovernmental Affairs made the real decision-making about jobs and not Sanchez, Pugh said.

"He's not an alderman, he's not a political operative," Pugh said. "He's a guy who did his job."

The government's leadoff witness, Jack Drumgould, former head of personnel in "Streets and San" as city workers call the department, testified that Sorich had the final say-so on who got hired to drive the garbage trucks and snow plows.

"Were any of the hiring sequences based on merit?" asked Assistant U.S. Attorney Julie Ruder. "No," Drumgould said.

"Were any of the hiring sequences based on qualifications?" she asked. "No," he said. She then asked if any were based on "how they performed in interviews."

"No," said Drumgould, who was also a witness at the Sorich trial.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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