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Friday, May 23, 2008

The expediters will always be with us.

Yesterday in Chicago, 15 people, including 7 city employees, were charged in a federal indictment alleging corruption and bribery in the city’s Building and Zoning departments. The indictment says the employees took bribes to help building developers avoid seeking variances, receive certificates of occupancy, and pass inspections. Many of these bribes were paid by an “expediter” who became a cooperating witness.

These indictments are the latest in that city’s attempt to rout out corruption in the buildings industry. Last fall, inspectors pleaded guilty to accepting bribes for lifting stop-work orders on buildings that had multiple code violations. In announcing the new indictments, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald admitted that the earlier prosecution “did not make enough of an impact.” On learning of the latest indictments, the chairman of the Chicago City Council’s Buildings Committee stated: “I thought we had cleaned this all up. . . . I thought we got rid of these bums.”

When I first went into private practice in the early 1990’s, I represented a New York City buildings inspector in a federal racketeering case who was charged with taking bribes to approve certificates of occupancy for real estate developers. The proof presented at trial was a window into the inner workings of a city governance system so byzantine that the job of “expediter” was created. An expediter is someone who learns what line to stand on in order to get permits approved. In Chicago, federal prosecutors are alleging that an expediter also learns who to bribe in order to get this done.

In New York, the City Council passed a law requiring expediters to register with the Buildings Department. Bureaucratic chaos ensued, with expediters being sent from borough to borough and facing escalating demands for documentation. One expediter said, “My first reaction to all this was, ‘That’s not fair,’ and then I thought, ‘That’s the point.’” He was convinced that the department’s real aim was to eliminate expediters. A deputy commissioner said the department was streamlining the process of filing permit applications so that builders wouldn’t have to hire someone else to help them through the process. “There shouldn’t be a need for expediters,” he said. The year was 1991.

It seems to be a fact of life that wherever there is construction, prosecutors chase city officials who have a bit of power to wield at a point in an approval process, and every few years they indict a few of them to send a message. It’s nice to know there are certain things you can depend on. CR

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