Judge enters stunning acquittal for contractor in Bloomingdale Township bribery trial

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In an extremely rare development, a federal judge on Friday dismissed a case against a contractor on trial for paying bribes to Bloomingdale Township freeway boss in exchange for work that in some cases did not have never been done.

In acquitting Debra Fazio of wire fraud, U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly ruled that prosecutors failed to prove Fazio had knowledge of the scheme or intentionally participated in it.

It’s virtually unheard of for a defendant in Dirksen’s U.S. court to see a judge dismiss an indictment while the jury is still hearing evidence, especially in a public corruption case.

Fazio’s attorney, Heather Winslow, said in a statement Friday to the Tribune that she was grateful for the judge’s decision.

“We are fully aware that this type of layoff is rare,” Winslow said. “It was the right decision in this case.”

A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office did not immediately respond to a call seeking comment.

Meanwhile, the trial continued on Friday for Fazio’s boyfriend and co-defendant, Mario Giannini, who was accused of being far more involved in the scheme than Fazio. Giannini was due to testify in his own defense on Friday afternoon.

The astonishing development came after Robert Czernek, the former elected highway commissioner for Bloomingdale’s Township, testified earlier this week that he had conspired for years to take more than $700,000 in bribes from Bulldog Earth Movers Inc., based in Bloomingdale’s, in exchange for work that, in many cases, was never done.

Czernek, 71, pleaded guilty earlier this year to one count of honest services wire fraud and agreed to cooperate against Bulldog owner Fazio and longtime employee Giannini.

Czernek told jurors on Wednesday that Giannini first proposed the kickback scheme during a visit to the township quarry a few months after Czernek was appointed highways commissioner in 2012.

“He said, ‘We can make money from this,'” Czernek said.

Czernek told the jury that over the next eight years, he used his official position to approve more than $700,000 in payments for stone delivery, landfill grading and storm sewer bills submitted by Bulldog Earth. movers.

As part of the scheme, bills had been artificially inflated by overcharging for stone and charging for hours of sewer and landfill grading work that had never been done, according to Czernek.

He covered up the fraud by leaving handwritten notes for Giannini at various secluded locations on the property of the Bloomingdale Township Highways Department, as well as at a barbecue at Giannini’s home.

The notes included a description of the work and the number of hours Bulldog allegedly spent on various projects. Fazio then submitted bills to the commune that repeated Czernek’s notes verbatim, according to his testimony.

A note shown to the jury on Wednesday had been scribbled on a notepad with numbers indicating stone charges. At the top were the words “All you” and the number 3,575. At the bottom was another number, 9,850, with the word “Split”.

“That ‘All you’ meant that (Giannini) would get that $3,575,” Czernek said. He said that for the $9,850 figure, “separating” meant they would each take an equal share.

In order to conceal the extra money from his wife, Czernek told Giannini to have the bribes paid by checks made out to a former trucking company he owned, Tri-State Express, according to his testimony.

Czernek testified that the scheme continued almost unabated throughout his tenure. The only exception was 2013, an election year, when it was agreed to suspend bribes because Czernek “didn’t want to come under scrutiny”, he said.

During cross-examination, lawyers for Fazio and Giannini tried to undermine Czernek’s credibility, making him admit that he had initially tried to mislead investigators about some of his financial dealings. He was also repeatedly asked what breaks he hoped to get in his own case in exchange for his cooperation.

“Are you hoping you’ll avoid jail altogether?” Winslow asked at one point.

Czernek replied, “There are no guarantees.”

Defense attorneys also questioned Czernek on why he kept his job and his six-figure salary for nearly six months after his indictment in August 2020. Czernek said he was “never asked to resign.”

“Were you ever asked to resign? asked attorney Susan Pavlow. “Mr. Czernek, you admitted to defrauding the people of Bloomingdale Township. Surely the decent thing to do would have been to stop taking a paycheck?”

“I was still working,” Czernek said.

In pleading guilty, Czernek agreed to forfeit property seized in the investigation, including approximately $28,000 in cash, a 1981 Corvette, 2014 Lexus RX 350 and a 1966 Buick Wildcat.

The jury is expected to hear closing arguments in the Giannini case and begin deliberations on Monday.

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