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‘What did you say they would give me?’: First undercover recordings by Ald. Daniel Solis made public in corruption case

Chicago Tribune - 4/11/2023

In October 2016, Daniel Solis, the then-powerful alderman of Chicago’s 25th Ward, was talking with a longtime associate at the back of a coffee shop about a potential financial windfall involving a massive $1 billionChicago Public Schools janitorial services contract.

At the meeting, Democratic political operative Roberto Caldero told Solis he needed his help convincing other aldermen and then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel to steer the contract to a company that had hired Caldero as a consultant.

“So what did you say they would give me?” Solis asked Caldero at their table by the men’s room. Caldero silently held up both hands and spread his fingers — a gesture that federal prosecutors say meant $10,000.

“Ok,” Solis replied. “But you’ve been saying that a lot.”

Watch the video:

The moment, it turned out, was captured on a hidden FBI video camera Solis was wearing as part of his stunning turn as a government mole, which ultimately led to federal corruption charges against not only Caldero, but also two of Chicago’s most powerful politicians, 14th Ward Ald. Edward Burke and ex-House Speaker Michael Madigan.

The undercover video was one of several recordings made by Solis that were released to the Tribune for the first time this week ahead of Caldero’s sentencing on Friday.

Prosecutors are asking for up to about five years in prison on wire fraud charges stemming from Caldero’s effort to influence the CPS contract as well as a separate scheme to use Solis’ clout to get a park and street renamed for relatives of a campaign donor.

Solis also recorded Burke and Madigan as part of his unprecedented deal with the U.S. attorney’s office, which calls for corruption charges against him to be dropped after his cooperation is over.

Though limited in scope, the recordings of Caldero offer the most detailed look yet at the significance of Solis’ undercover work, which captured not only audio conversations but also videos showing the facial expressions and other nuances of his targets — including Caldero’s attempt to avoid saying the bribe amount out loud.

A strikingly similar video shown to the jury in the ongoing “ComEd Four” bribery trial depicted then-ComEd lobbyist Jay Doherty holding up five fingers to another government informant, Fidel Marquez, allegedly indicating that $5,000 per month was being illegally funneled by the utility to one of Madigan’s top associates.

In the Oct. 24, 2016, recording at the coffee shop, Caldero said he personally stood to make up to $300,000 a year off the CPS deal, which he referred to as his “retirement account,” and beseeched Solis to go to bat for his company directly with then-Ald. George Cardenas and Emanuel.

“So, I call George, I talk to the mayor, and I get —” Solis said on the recording, pausing to offer his own ten-fingered gesture.

“That’s all you need to do,” Caldero replied.

Neither Emanuel nor Cardenas was accused of wrongdoing.

Caldero, 70, pleaded guilty in September to wire fraud. His attorneys have asked for less than three years behind bars, arguing in a recent filing that he was merely a “middleman” and has an otherwise positive record of anti-gang work and other youth initiatives important to his community.

Raised in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood, Caldero was a longtime political operative for former U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez dating back to Gutierrez’s first run for City Council in the 1980s.

Caldero made headlines after surfacing in an FBI search warrant affidavit made public in 2019 alleging he’d arranged for erectile dysfunction drugs and sexual services at a North Side massage parlor for Solis while he was lobbying the alderman on a variety of issues.

None of those allegations were contained in Caldero’s plea agreement with prosecutors. However, there was new mention of an elected official, identified only as Public Official A, whom Caldero enlisted to pressure Emanuel to support the awarding of the CPS janitorial contract to Cleveland-based GCA Services Group.

According to the plea, Caldero told an associate to “keep Public Official A happy” until he met with the mayor, and enlisted another person to supply marijuana for Public Official A’s birthday in December 2016.

“If you can do it, get it done,” Caldero asked the unnamed associate in a Dec. 6, 2016, wiretapped call that was also released by prosecutors ahead of Caldero’s sentencing. “I just want to keep him happy.”

Watch the video:

Caldero explained on another wiretapped call a few days later that Public Official A had met with Emanuel and that the mayor promised: “’You will be happy, we’re going to take care of it,’” prosecutors alleged in a recent court filing. Caldero also said on that call that Solis had reported the mayor told him the same thing, the filing stated.

Gutierrez, whose birthday is Dec. 10, made a surprise announcement in 2017 that he was not running for reelection for the Congressional seat he’d held since 1993.

Last week, Gutierrez also came up in testimony at the ComEd Four trial, where former McPier boss Juan Ochoa told the jury that he enlisted Gutierrez’s help to push for an appointment to the utility’s board of directors.

Gutierrez is not charged with any crime. He has not answered repeated attempts by the Tribune to reach him over the past two years, both by phone and at his Northwest Side home, regarding the various investigations.

The CPS contract fraud scheme, meanwhile, involved Pedro Soto, a chief of staff to former public schools CEO Janice Jackson. Soto pleaded guilty in 2020 to lying to the FBI about whether he passed secret bid information about the $1 billion custodial contract to an operative working for one of the bidders.

According to Caldero’s plea, he offered Soto a promise of future employment, Champagne and discounted event space for a family gathering, and admission to a museum benefit in exchange for Soto’s help landing the contract for GCA Services. The value of the benefits offered to Soto was pegged by prosecutors at $3,000.

In October 2016, Caldero asked Solis to “advise and exert pressure” on Emanuel to help grease the wheels for Company A, saying that if Solis did so, the company would contribute $10,000 to his campaign fund, according to prosecutors.

Caldero allegedly kept up the campaign for months, soliciting and delivering at least $5,000 in campaign checks for Solis in exchange for his assistance — with the promise of more.

“I’m gonna ... just (tell Solis), ‘Look, you get (GCA) then I’ll raise you another $15,000, but you got to produce,” Caldero said on one recorded call released to the Tribune this week. “That’s exactly how I’m going to get it to (Solis).”

Soto, meanwhile, admitted in a plea agreement with prosecutors that he lied to the FBI about his contacts with Caldero, saying he’d never discussed privileged information about the janitorial contract bid process with him or what favors he might get in return, court records show.

The contract ended up being awarded to a different bidder. Soto, who cooperated with prosecutors, was sentenced last month to a year and a half of probation by U.S. District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman.

At the same time as the school contract scheme, Caldero was also soliciting Solis’ help on behalf of Individual B, a business owner from Western Springs who was offering up to $100,000 in campaign donations to have Chicago issue an honorary street name for his father and rename a park for his grandfather, according Caldero’s plea agreement.

The indictment alleged Caldero told Solis the family wanted to see some action in the City Council before donating money. In October 2016, under the direction of investigators, Solis introduced an ordinance granting the honorary street name, the indictment alleged. The family cut Solis a $5,000 check two months later, according to the charges.

While the indictment does not name the family, records show the ordinance introduced by Solis that month renamed the 500 block of South Wells Street “Honorary Victor J. Cacciatore Sr. Way.”

The Tribune has previously identified the park as Oscar D’Angelo Park on South Franklin Street. D’Angelo, known as the “Mayor of Little Italy,” was a longtime confidant to former Mayor Richard Daley who was disbarred during the Operation Greylord scandal for providing rental cars as gifts to judges, politicians and city officials.

The search warrant affidavit later made public in the Solis investigation alleged Caldero had solicited campaign donations from the Cacciatore family, which, among other businesses, owns Elgin Sweeping Services, a major street-sweeping company.

At the time, Caldero was representing Elgin Sweeping in its efforts to obtain relief from a change in the city’s water billing practices that investigators indicated could have cost the company more than $1 million.

The Cacciatores have not been accused of wrongdoing.

Solis, meanwhile, could be called to testify at Burke’s racketeering trial in November, or Madigan’s trial on similar charges, which is set for April 2024.

In defending the deal struck with Solis, Assistant U.S. Attorney Amarjeet Bhachu called the ex-alderman’s cooperation “singular” even in a city with a long history of public corruption investigations.

“He didn’t just talk. He took action,” Bhachu told a federal judge last year. “He worked with the federal government for six years to expose corruption.”

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