Feds Charge A Former Cook County Commissioner With Corruption

Jeff Tobolski was a Democratic member of the county board and mayor of the southwest suburban village of McCook.

Jeff Tobolski
Jeff Tobolski presides over a village board meeting in south suburban McCook on Feb. 3, 2020. Tobolski was charged Friday with extortion and lying on his income taxes. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Jeff Tobolski
Jeff Tobolski presides over a village board meeting in south suburban McCook on Feb. 3, 2020. Tobolski was charged Friday with extortion and lying on his income taxes. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Feds Charge A Former Cook County Commissioner With Corruption

Jeff Tobolski was a Democratic member of the county board and mayor of the southwest suburban village of McCook.

In the latest in a long series of public-corruption cases filed in the Chicago area, federal prosecutors on Friday leveled two felony counts against Jeff Tobolski, a former Democratic Cook County commissioner and mayor of the southwest suburban village of McCook.

The charges of extortion and lying on his income taxes came nearly a year after investigators raided the McCook village hall on the same day they searched a variety of sites across the state, including a powerful lawmaker’s office at the Illinois Capitol and the municipal offices of other suburbs.

The case against Tobolski, 55, was detailed in a charging document called a criminal information — which suggests that the defendant could plan to plead guilty in the corruption case.

One of Tobolski’s defense lawyers, James Vanzant of Evanston, declined to comment Friday.

According to court records, the feds accused Tobolski of conspiring with another, unnamed McCook village official to extort money from someone beginning “in or around” 2016 and continuing through 2018.

Prosecutors alleged that Tobolski’s victim paid the money after being “induced by the wrongful use of actual fear and threatened fear of economic harm.”

The second count in the case accused Tobolski — who was a county commissioner for nearly a decade — of filing a false tax return in 2018.

Tobolski had claimed a total income that year of more than $214,000, but authorities say he knew his real income was actually much higher than that.

A spokesman for John Lausch, the top federal prosecutor in Chicago, did not return calls Friday.

Agents had raided McCook last September. Village officials initially declined to release documents served by the feds, but they relented after WBEZ and the Chicago Sun-Times filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against McCook.

The search warrant used in the raid sought a long list of documents about Tobolski, his top county board aide and even the heating and air conditioning at Tobolski’s home in the tiny, heavily industrialized suburb (population 228).

After the raid, Tobolski skipped county and village board meetings for months. When he finally resurfaced, attending meetings as if nothing were amiss, he told reporters he had no plans to resign unless convicted. At that time, said the feds had raided McCook another time, in 2012, and nothing came of that investigation.

“If there is something that requires me to step down, I’ll be the first person to do that,” he told WBEZ and the Better Government Association earlier this year. “But right now, there’s nothing.”

He changed tack soon, though, resigning from the county board and the McCook mayor’s job in March.

The previous month, federal prosecutors charged Tobolski’s chief of staff at the county board, Patrick Doherty, with three counts of bribery related to Doherty’s side gig as a “sales agent” for a red-light-camera company.

Also in February, WBEZ and the Better Government Association reported that a factory owner in Tobolski’s county board district felt pressured to give a campaign contribution to the commission while the businessman’s application for a county property-tax break was pending.

Before the lucrative tax break got approved, Tobolski sent factory owner Zach Mottl multiple email messages requesting a political contribution. In one message to Mottl, Tobolski said Mottl’s tool-and-die business should contribute campaign cash annually — and budget for the expense as if it were a “fixed cost” of doing business in his district.

“I’m delighted,” Mottl said Friday of the criminal case against Tobolski. “I’m absolutely certain my story is not unique. Too many of us have felt this.”

Mottl praised the FBI and prosecutors but said, “They’ve still got a lot to go. Every citizen in the state pays a heavy price for the corruption.”

On the same day as the raid in McCook last year, agents also searched the office of state Sen. Martin Sandoval, a Democrat who has since pleaded guilty, and the local-government offices in Lyons and Summit. Nobody has been charged in those communities.

Another south suburban mayor, Crestwood’s Lou Presta, faced his own corruption case two weeks ago.

And prosecutors in Chicago recently announced that Commonwealth Edison admitted to a bribery scheme in Springfield to win electricity-rate increases and other favorable official actions.

It’s all in addition to the federal corruption probes at Chicago City Hall, which have ensnared some of the city’s most powerful aldermen, including Edward Burke and Danny Solis.

Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team.