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Paid to do nothing

January 23, 2004

BY BY TIM NOVAK AND STEVE WARMBIR Staff Reporters

With no more than a handshake, Mayor Daley's administration spends nearly $40 million a year hiring hundreds of trucks -- primarily dump trucks -- that often do little or no work, a Sun-Times investigation has found.

 

The city has a list of about 165 favorite truck companies to send to city work sites. Some owners have political clout, some are mob figures or their relatives.

 


 
SUN-TIMES
While the Sun-Times watched this hired truck in West Humboldt Park, it went to McDonald's and Jewel, and eventually hauled a small load.

 
Many do nothing but work for the city's Hired Truck Program, and often their operations are run out of the owners' homes. Six of every 10 aren't listed in the phone book.

But many are listed on campaign reports showing they contribute money to the mayor and other politicians -- in all more than $800,000 since 1996.

Over the last five years, more than 25 percent of the Hired Truck money has been spent on firms operating out of the 11th Ward, the mayor's political power base. The money spent on Hired Trucks has soared in recent years under Daley, increasing from 1999 to 2000 by more than 30 percent, to $40 million.

Trucking firm owners say it's easy money. Typically, they're paid $40 an hour or more for drivers and trucks, often splotched with rust. Recently, the city was hiring a dump truck built in 1955.

"You put in your eight hours a day, but you just sit on the job," said Jesse Brunt of Brunt Brothers Transfer. "There's no fuel cost, no wear and tear on the trucks."

At most, said Brunt, a 25-year veteran of the program, "you might have to haul a load or two."

Indeed, when Sun-Times reporters spent three days visiting two city work sites, they saw multiple dump trucks from private firms do nothing.

City workers say it's common to have the trucks show up when they are not needed. Yet, these trucks are hired day after day, at taxpayer expense.

 

WHERE THE MONEY GOES
The Daley family's 11th Ward had by far the highest number of trucking firms benefitting from the City of Chicago's Hired Truck Program.
"If anybody's going to sit around and do nothing, it ought to be a city worker,'' grumbled one city sewer worker over the growing number of private trucks the city hires.

Getting paid to do little or nothing comes with a price, says another trucking firm owner, a 20-year veteran of the program who requested anonymity. It costs him about $1,500 a year in bribes to several city employees to keep his trucks active in the no-bid program, the owner said.

"You put it in the Christmas cards," he said, referring to cash bribes. "Don't let anybody see it. You gotta do what you gotta do."

Once, the owner said, he decided to cut one city employee off his Christmas list. The response was swift.

"You know, just right after Christmas, I lost one truck" from the program, he said. "I only made that mistake once."

Besides being paid to do nothing, most trucking companies in the program pay their drivers much less than the city pays its union drivers. "It's just pure patronage," said one critic, a Teamsters official. "The whole program is a scam."

Daley's budget director, William Abolt, who is responsible for the program, acknowledged the problems identified by the Sun-Times and said he wasn't surprised by them.

"We're paying more than we need," said Abolt, without saying how much. "We are paying for trucks that we aren't using or we aren't fully using.

"There is a tendency to overdo things. We tend to send more resources than not. That's the reality of a political system.

"It is far from a perfect system."

Abolt, who's been budget director since August 2002, acknowledged the city has known about the waste for years. In 1997, an audit raised many of the issues Abolt says he's trying to fix.

"Sometimes we tend to make work for companies because this is the only job they've got," he said.

He admitted there is "a lot of potential for abuse" and said the city has been working since last year to correct the problems by establishing a better paper trail to keep track of program spending. He said he has met resistance among some city employees to provide such data.

In one form or another, the city's Hired Truck Program has been around for more than 50 years. These days, the mayor's budget department decides who gets into the program, where there's no competitive bidding.

For five years, the man overseeing the program for the department was Angelo Torres. He was moved to a different city job two months ago, after Sun-Times reporters asked about the program.

Torres let his father-in-law's one-truck firm into the program. Approval came 16 days after the company, Four Queens Inc., was legally created.

Abolt said the matter has been referred to a city department for investigation.

Under Torres, two mob figures, since sentenced to prison, got their trucking firms into the program.

Three city departments -- Sewer and Water, Streets and Sanitation, and Transportation -- decide how many trucks they need and pick which get the no-bid business. Rather than solicit bids, the city spreads it around, which is highly unusual.

"There's no contract," said Charles Sawyer, brother of ex-Mayor Eugene Sawyer and the owner of Jim's Cartage and Garage, which has two trucks in the program. "You show up for work every day until such time as somebody tells you not to show up anymore."

The Sun-Times requested copies of all bills submitted by six companies in the program for 2003. City officials could not produce bills from two of them.

The city inspector general has gotten many complaints over the years about trucks doing little or no work.

The biggest scandal for the program came in 1997, when the Department of Fleet Management was accused of giving about half of the trucking business to Michael Tadin, who has made millions off city work and is a longtime political supporter of the mayor.

Tadin was accused of double-billing the city, allegations never proven. The city reacted by placing the Hired Truck Program in the mayor's Office of Budget and Management, and spreading the trucking business to more firms. Tadin's two companies, with their fleet of sparkling blue-and-white trucks, still get more work than anyone else -- $1.5 million for the first 10 months of 2003.

It's difficult to get thrown out of the program. Take John Gavin, who was suspended for a year in 2000 for passing $100 to a city employee working in the Hired Truck Program.

Gavin admits passing $100 but said his intention was misunderstood. "It was for lunch for her and her niece or nephew," Gavin said.

The city employee reported she told Gavin she had already eaten lunch, when he stuffed a $100 bill in her hand. While Gavin was suspended, though, his son's trucking firm's business with the Hired Truck Program more than doubled. Gavin said the firms are separate.

Like the Gavins, many families own more than one firm in the program. A few families dominate.

Tadin, for instance, has two firms in the program, and his 78-year-old aunt has one, too. Relatives of the late Ald. Fred Roti, who was the mob's representative at City Hall, have several companies in the program.

In the end, clout can get firms into the program. And that means other firms lose out. Brunt, a trucking firm owner who went from four trucks to one in the program, said clout is king.

"If you got connections," he said, "you get what you want."

Contributing: Art Golab

TOP EARNING FIRMS IN CHICAGO'S HIRED TRUCK PROGRAM

 
 
 
 


 

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