Updated: August 24, 2012 6:08AM
The federal complaint charging seven people in Chicago last week in an alleged bribery conspiracy is 42 pages long. Former state Sen. Rickey Hendon is mentioned 21 times in those 42 pages, although never by name.
It’s pretty clear from the document that the U.S. attorney’s office has been looking at Hendon, a Chicago Democrat, for at least four years.
In July 2008, the Chicago Tribune published an exposé on state grants steered to local groups by Hendon. The Tribune claimed that half of the 48 grant recipients “were running dubious programs or declined to show how they spent the money.”
Conveniently, that same month, the feds busted a Chicago police officer during an investigation into gun trafficking and public corruption. The cop quickly offered to cooperate to reduce his sentence.
It doesn’t take much reading between the lines to see that the corrupt cop may have been given the task of helping federal agents nab Hendon. One of the officer’s longtime friends was Dean Nichols, a close friend of Hendon.
Just a month after that cop was busted, the FBI recorded Nichols talking about another Hendon pal, Reggi Hopkins. A partial transcript provided by federal prosecutors purports to show that Hendon and Nichols steered a $170,000 state grant to a group that Hopkins ran but only on the condition that Hendon’s nephew and Nichols shared the spoils.
Nichols was recorded by the feds quoting Hendon as telling Hopkins, “whatever you’re gonna do, I want you to include” the nephew. Nichols was recorded as saying that Hendon’s nephew would “split the salary part” of the grant.
Hopkins’ group also received a $20,000 grant from the state in 2008, and it submitted a budget showing that Hendon’s nephew was getting $3,250 in salary, according to the government.
In June 2010, Hopkins was recorded telling the Chicago cop that he had been “donating 15 percent” of what he made off the grants to Hendon’s campaign. However, state campaign records “do not show significant contributions from Hopkins” to the campaign, the charges say.
A few months after that conversation with Hopkins was recorded, a federal grand jury subpoenaed state records of grants that Hendon had steered to various West Side groups from 2006 to 2008.
Hendon abruptly resigned from the Senate four months after the grand jury subpoena was issued, but prosecutors were apparently still interested.
In September 2011, seven months after Hendon resigned, the FBI recorded Hopkins complaining that Hendon’s nephew and Nichols “literally did nothing” for the money they were given from the state grant he had obtained.
The following month, a Hendon friend named Elliott Kozel told the officer/informant that he had received a state grant via Hendon and that Nichols had been paid “a couple of grand.”
So, what do we have here?
Well, what appears to have been a big break for the feds in 2008 obviously didn’t have any immediate benefit. Nobody was busted, after all. The 2010 subpoenas of Hendon’s grants after Hopkins’ admission that he paid Hendon’s nephew haven’t yet produced any high-level indictments, either.
But then in July 2011, five months after Hendon resigned, federal agents set up a sting operation. They had the police officer tell Nichols that he had “run into a friend” who could dole out $25,000 federal grants almost at will in exchange for $5,000 off the top.
Nichols allegedly brought Hopkins and Kozel into the scheme along with four others. They were the seven charged last week with conspiracy to commit bribery.
Sometimes, when standard investigations don’t work and informants don’t work and subpoenas don’t work, the feds resort to setting up smaller players for a fall in the hope that the small fish will flip on the bigger ones, such as Hendon.
The way the federal case against the seven is written, it’s obvious whom federal prosecutors are really targeting or desire to publicly shame if they can’t get him.
The government is extremely careful about how it outlines a criminal case and the wording used, so it seems highly unlikely that it would mention Hendon 21 times without trying to send a message to all.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.