Unredacted Search Warrant Shows Feds’ Sprawling Probe Into Illinois State Senator
Updated at 4:10 p.m. Oct. 11, 2019
Federal agents who raided Illinois state Sen. Martin Sandoval’s statehouse office sought information about Commonwealth Edison, executives of a red-light camera company, a suburban road-paving magnate and one of the largest operators of state-licensed video gambling machines in Illinois.
Those details of the massive federal investigation became clear when the Illinois Senate on Friday released an unredacted version of the search warrant used by the feds to raid Sandoval’s Springfield office last month. The release followed WBEZ’s lawsuit against Democratic Senate President John Cullerton’s office, which initially blocked the document’s full release.
The blockbuster disclosure, revealing one of the most sprawling federal investigations in more than a generation, touches on some of the biggest players in Springfield. The document release came just a short time before Sandoval relinquished his chairmanship of the influential Senate Transportation Committee.
Sandoval has not been charged with criminal wrongdoing.
Among the names in the newly released document is Cesar Santoy, one of Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker’s appointees to the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority board. On Friday, Pritzker demanded Santoy’s resignation from the board, and by late Friday afternoon the governor’s office said Santoy had agreed to tender his resignation.
“Corruption and self-dealing are unacceptable and will be rooted out, whether it’s in my administration or in the legislature. So, from my perspective, Cesar Santoy should step aside from his position on the tollway board,” Pritzker told reporters in Chicago Friday.
Santoy, who circulated candidate nominating petitions for Sandoval in 2018, has not been charged with any criminal wrongdoing.
In a statement, Santoy’s attorney, Brendan Shiller, said he’d been informed Santoy is not a target of the investigation. The statement said the government sought communications from Santoy.
“He is confident that the legal concerns will clear up soon and hopeful that once that happens he will be reconsidered for the board,” Shiller said in the statement.
Republicans pounced on Friday’s fast-breaking developments that had both the governor’s administration and the Democratic-led state Senate on the defensive.
“The Illinois Democratic Party is a crime ring masquerading as a political party,” Illinois Republican Party Chairman Tim Schneider said in a statement.
The 10-page search warrant and accompanying list of items taken from the FBI’s Sept. 24 Sandoval raids is a who’s who of Springfield and southwest suburban politics. Below is a look at those named in the federal documents.
ComEd and Exelon
The Sandoval search warrant sought information about Commonwealth Edison and its corporate parent, Exelon, four unidentified Exelon officials and “any issue supported by any of those businesses or individuals, including but not limited to rate increases.”
Those references in the search warrant are not surprising because ComEd has disclosed receiving two subpoenas from prosecutors in recent months for information about its lobbying in Springfield and for all its “communications” with Sandoval.
In a statement to WBEZ, ComEd spokeswoman Jean Medina said the company is cooperating with the feds. She also confirmed Sandoval’s daughter, Angie Sandoval, is a ComEd employee, but declined to comment further.
In July, WBEZ and the Better Government Association first reported that federal agents had raided the home of former Chicago Ald. Michael Zalewski, and sought records related to ComEd and Madigan.
Even though Sandoval gave up his Senate Transportation Committee chairmanship, he remains a member of the Senate Energy and Public Utilities Committee, where legislation pertaining to ComEd typically gets heard.
Sandoval, his wife and their companies
The search warrant also targeted records and information about any clients for a corporation formed by Sandoval called Puentes, Inc., and another one formed by his wife, Marina, known as Monarca, Inc.
The feds sought records related to “any person or entity that has made payment to or agreed to make payment to any such business, any official action related to such businesses.” An unidentified municipality’s president, its attorney and an unnamed political action committee are identified in the section of the warrant dealing with the Sandoval family businesses.
Records obtained earlier by WBEZ show Sandoval’s private company, Puentes Inc., is paid $4,200 a month by the Town of Cicero and $2,000 a month by the North Berwyn Park District, both of which lie in Sandoval’s legislative district that straddles Chicago and southwest suburbs.
The FBI reported taking “invoices and correspondence with [Monarca], agreements between [Monarca] + other entities” in addition to “documents ref. Monarca Inc. and Marina Sandoval.”
A red light camera operator and Cook County commissioner
Among the long “list of items to be seized” in the Sandoval raid, the first section of the warrant focused largely on SafeSpeed, a Chicago-based company that operates red-light cameras in many suburban communities under lucrative deals with local officials.
Suburbs that use the company’s cameras collected fine revenue totaling more than $70 million from 2014 through 2016, according to a report from the Chicago Sun-Times and ABC7 Chicago.
SafeSpeed CEO and co-founder Nikki Zollar is a former head of the Chicago election board and once was director of the Illinois Department of Professional Regulation. She also was a Chicago State University trustee.
In a statement, SafeSpeed spokesman Dennis Culloton said the company conducts business “ethically and with integrity. … We do not tolerate wrongdoing or public corruption and we support efforts to root it out.”
Others named in the same section of the search warrant seeking information about SafeSpeed included Jeff Tobolski, the Democratic Cook County commissioner and mayor of McCook. Tobolski’s office at the McCook village hall was the target of a different FBI raid, two days after the search warrants were served at Sandoval’s offices. The feds that day also appeared in southwest suburban Lyons and Summit.
Tobolski has stayed out of the public eye since the raids. He even missed Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s speech on Thursday, where she presented her 2020 budget. Tobolski did not return a message for comment.
Santoy, his architecture firm and former Chicago deputy aviation commissioner Bill Helm were named alongside SafeSpeed officials in the search warrant. A spokesman for the city said Helm retired in August.
Three public officials in Summit, which is about two miles from McCook, also were named in the search warrant. They include Village President Sergio Rodriguez, police chief John Kosmowski and Bill Mundy, head of public works.
There is also a reference in the warrant to specific legislation, House Bill 173.
A measure from 2017 with the same bill number would have outlawed red-light cameras. The legislation passed the House overwhelmingly, but stalled in the Senate, at one point showing up in the Sandoval-led Senate Transportation Committee.
Major video gambling operator
Rick Heidner, who owns Hoffman Estates-based Gold Rush Gaming, is named in the search warrant. Gold Rush has more than 480 locations across the country, according to its website, and gave a $5,000 campaign contribution to Sandoval in August.
The Heidner reference in the search warrant sought information related to his affiliated businesses, including “sweepstakes, terminal operators, and/or any issue supported by any of those businesses or individuals, including but not limited to gaming.”
A spokesman of Heidner said Friday, “He doesn’t have any idea why his name is in this at all.”
A Heidner-backed venture to establish a racetrack in Tinley Park, Playing in the Park, LLC, won Illinois Racing Board approval in September. Heidner has not been accused of criminal wrongdoing, and the racing entity was not explicitly named in the warrant.
But its fate is unclear following Friday’s developments. A query to the Racing Board’s executive director about the matter went unanswered Friday.
Heidner has spoken publicly against so-called sweepstakes machines, which are unlicensed and compete against Gold Rush and other video gambling operators.
A spokesman for the Illinois Gaming Board, which regulates video gambling, declined to comment.
WBEZ and ProPublica Illinois reported in May that Gold Rush has employed two Cook County commissioners as sales agents.
Politically-connected construction magnate
Also named is road-paving magnate Michael Vondra and one of his top aides, John Harris. Harris served briefly as impeached Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s chief of staff and did a stint in prison following the Blagojevich corruption scandal.
The feds sought information about a litany of Vondra-related businesses and a foundation set up by Vondra and his wife, Dorothy. Also included was a request for records related to a west suburban golf course, Klein Creek Golf Club, where Sandoval has hosted numerous campaign fundraising events.
WBEZ was first to report that Vondra’s corporate offices in Bartlett were raided by federal agents on Sept. 24, the same day that the FBI and IRS entered Sandoval’s home and legislative offices.
Vondra-associated companies have contributed at least $29,000 to Sandoval since 2004, state campaign records show. Vondra has been an honorary chairman at Sandoval’s annual golf outings at a DuPage County golf course Vondra once owned.
Nearly $4,800 of that total came from the Vondra-owned Reliable Materials-Lyons company, which is right next to the village hall that got raided by the FBI on Sept. 26.
Vondra’s companies also gave at least $16,250 to the unsuccessful Cook County Board campaign of Angie Sandoval, the state senator’s daughter, state campaign records show.
Vondra also has been a major contributor to Tobolski, records show.
Additional state senators
The Sept. 24 Sandoval raid also yielded information about Democratic state Sen. Steven Landek, of Bridgeview, and the law firm of Democratic Sen. Don Harmon, of Oak Park.
The list of items seized by the FBI included a “flash drive with Landek written on it,” according to documents revealed Friday.
On Friday, Landek, who also is mayor of Bridgeview, said he believed his name was mentioned in the FBI document because he and Sandoval shared an office assistant earlier this year. He said investigators had not contacted him or village officials in Bridgeview.
The list also indicated “documents from Burke Burns law firm” were taken from Sandoval’s office. Harmon, of Oak Park, is a partner in the Chicago law firm, Burke, Burns & Panelli.
“I have absolutely no idea to what this refers,” Harmon said. “But I’d be happy to talk to you again if anything comes to light.”
“Shadow” suburban developer
The search warrant sought information from Sandoval’s office about developer Vahooman "Shadow" Mirkhaef, who owns Environmental Group Services. His previous projects include a 52-unit multifamily development in Melrose Park, according to Crain’s Chicago Business.
Mirkhaef did not return a call for comment. His attorney declined to comment.
Dave McKinney covers state politics and government for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter at @davemckinney. Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter at WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter at @dmihalopoulos. Kristen Schorsch covers Cook County politics for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @kschorsch.