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Chicago City Clerk Charged in Scandal

James J. Laski is accused of soliciting tens of thousands in bribes from trucking firms, and trying to cover up before a federal probe.

January 14, 2006|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO — City Clerk James J. Laski was charged on Friday with soliciting tens of thousands of dollars in bribes and obstructing justice -- making him the latest and highest-ranking public official drawn into the two-year federal probe of Chicago's scandal-ridden Hired Truck Program.

According to an affidavit unsealed in federal court, Laski, 52, took bribes from two trucking company officials and told one of them to lie to a federal grand jury to hide the payoffs.

The program, which contracted vehicles from outside companies to assist with public works and construction projects, was promoted by City Hall as a means of helping cut costs. But investigators have found that many of the trucking companies were being paid millions of dollars to do no work, and city workers were seeking bribes in exchange for securing the contracts.

Of the 39 people charged so far in the investigation, about half were city employees.

Laski is Chicago's second-highest official. His office is responsible for maintaining all official city government records; issuing all business, liquor and other city licenses; publishing a record of the city council proceedings and handling the sale of about 1.2 million parking and vehicle permits.

Laski declined to comment on the charges Friday. He was released on $10,000 bail and was to wear an electronic monitoring device for the court to track his whereabouts.

"You can't have a city clerk working at City Hall shaking people down for bribes," U.S. Atty. Patrick J. Fitzgerald said at a news conference. The charges are "naked bribery," Fitzgerald said. "Pay me money and you'll get business."

From 1998 to 2003, Laski allegedly was paid a monthly kickback to get the trucking company -- which the affidavit did not name -- into the program.

According to court documents, Laski told the company's owner that "if I get this truck on, I want $500 a month." When the company added a second truck in 2001, Laski was paid $1,000 a month, the documents said.

The bribes stopped in 2003, after federal investigators began to look into the program, the court documents said.

Salvatore "Sam" Gammicchia -- a Cook County employee who earned $1,000 a month as a member of the political organization Friends of James Laski -- also was charged Friday with obstructing justice by threatening a witness not to speak with investigators and telling another to lie to a grand jury. Gammicchia, 62, is being confined at home. He could not be reached for comment Friday.

Laski and Gammicchia told the trucking officials -- who were cooperating with federal investigators and recording the conversations -- that at least one of them should lie to a grand jury about the bribes, according to court documents.

"You might do a little time," Laski told the witness, according to the affidavit.

In a statement Friday, Mayor Richard M. Daley acknowledged the seriousness of the charges and said City Hall would "continue to cooperate with the federal investigation. We also continue to monitor and review all city programs to ensure taxpayers are protected."

A former city alderman, Laski was reelected to a third term as city clerk in 2003. He would be up for reelection next year.

According to the city clerk's website, Laski "has continued his commitment to reform an office once plagued by scandal."

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