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Thursday, June 03, 2004

Chicago Tribune | Fugitive in Silver Shovel captured

Chicago Tribune | Fugitive in Silver Shovel captured

Fugitive in Silver Shovel captured
1st to be charged in 1990s probe held in Mexico

By Matt O'Connor and Ray Gibson, Tribune staff reporters. Tribune foreign correspondent Hugh Dellios in Mexico City and staff reporter Dan Mihalopoulos in Chicago contributed to this report
Published June 3, 2004

Six years after he failed to show up for prison, a once-prominent Chicago businessman convicted in the Operation Silver Shovel probe of public corruption was apprehended last month in his native Mexico, U.S. officials said Wednesday.

Marco Morales, 59, had been living in the Yucatan under his own name when he was arrested May 20, according to a spokesman for the U.S. Marshals Service in Chicago, which coordinated efforts in the U.S. to locate and apprehend Morales.

Morales was being held Wednesday in a jail near Mexico City pending proceedings to extradite him to the U.S.

Even before his flight from justice, Morales was an intriguing figure in the Silver Shovel probe because he admitted paying tens of thousands of dollars in bribes to an unnamed public figure who has never been charged.

Morales was sentenced almost 5 years in prison in 1997 after he pleaded guilty to selling cocaine to Silver Shovel mole John Christopher and bribing an undisclosed, high-level Chicago city official to get lucrative city construction contracts.

But he never showed up when he was scheduled to voluntarily surrender in late 1997 at a minimum-security federal prison in Milan, Mich.

In addition to the 59-month prison term for his Silver Shovel conviction, Morales could face additional bail-jumping charges for fleeing to Mexico.

Thomas Ullum, a deputy U.S. marshal in Chicago who spearheaded the U.S. part of the hunt for Morales, said it took months of work with officials in Mexico to arrest Morales May 20 in the city of Merida.

"There's a lot of red tape," Ullum said. "The fact that Morales is a Mexican citizen also made it more difficult."

Cesar Romero, spokesman for the Mexican Consulate in Chicago, said the process for extraditing someone from Mexico to the United States, or vice versa, is customarily long.

"It takes an eternity," Romero said. "You won't have [Morales] in Chicago immediately. It most likely will be a matter of years, not months."

Mexico extradited 37 fugitives from foreign countries, including 31 sought by the U.S., in 2003. The number of fugitives from U.S. justice extradited by Mexico has increased in recent years, from 17 in 2001 to 24 in 2002 and 31 last year.

Randall Samborn, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office, declined to say if further charges would be leveled against Morales.

Morales, who made a fortune in the construction business in Chicago, was the first person arrested in the Silver Shovel investigation soon after the political scandal exploded onto front pages in early 1996.

Probe proved a success

Silver Shovel was one of Chicago's most successful undercover probes of political corruption. But it was not without its critics because of the government's association with Christopher, a mob-connected waste hauler. Christopher's 3 1/2 years of undercover work, which included secretly taping hundreds of conversations, were the underpinnings of the investigation.

By the time the last defendant had been sentenced in 2001, six Chicago aldermen and a dozen others had been convicted. Among the most noteworthy convictions were those of former Ald. Larry Bloom (5th), a self-proclaimed champion of clean government, and former Aldermen Percy Giles (37th), Virgil Jones (15th), Ambrosio Medrano (25th), Jesse Evans (21st) and Allan Streeter (17th); and Thomas Fuller, former president of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District. Joseph Gardner, a water district commissioner and a former Chicago mayoral candidate, was a target of the investigation, but he died before he could be indicted.

Weeks after his arrest, Morales, faced with videotapes capturing him as he delivered 2 pounds of cocaine to Christopher in 1994, pleaded guilty to one count of dealing drugs.

"It's the best [expletive] in town," Morales was caught on tape telling Christopher of the cocaine. "Nothing but the best."

Bribery admission

More than a year later, Morales entered into a new plea agreement in which he acknowledged the drug-dealing and also admitted paying bribes to a high-ranking city Transportation Department official between 1991 and 1995. In return, the city official used his influence to ensure Morales' business, Polmex Construction, won a lucrative subcontract to raise sewers on Chicago streets, according to the plea agreement.

That work was done for National Asphalt Heat Treating, a company that won $51 million in city repaving contracts, city records show.

At Morales' sentencing, then-Assistant U.S. Atty. Jonathan Bunge told the judge that Morales had testified extensively for the government for numerous months and apparently implicated a second top city official in wrongdoing as well.

"Mr. Morales has cooperated in other investigations," transcripts quote Bunge as saying in 1997. "Most importantly, he has cooperated in a variety of ways in investigations of ... the corruption of two important city officials."

Morales' lawyer, Jeffrey Steinback, sought a prison sentence of less than 5 years, arguing a lengthier term would almost certainly end in Morales' deportation to Mexico.

"The bribery case was a bribery out of fear over losing the subcontracts that he had with the city," Steinback said at the sentencing before U.S. District Judge William Hart.

In a statement by Morales, he made no mention of the bribery, but he apologized for the drug-dealing. "On behalf of myself and my family, especially my children, I will forever regret that I did not refuse to do it," he said.

Because of a mix-up at the Michigan federal prison, prosecutors had been led to believe Morales had reported to prison as scheduled in late 1997. Authorities issued a warrant for his arrest in February 1998 after learning Morales had fled.

Reached Wednesday, Steinback said he hadn't heard from Morales since his apprehension and doesn't know if he still represents him.

At the sentencing, Steinback said Morales came to the country with his family in 1956 when he was 11 years old. Since he couldn't speak, read or write English, he was placed in the 1st grade in a Chicago public school.

Teased because of his size and limited English, Morales dropped out of school by the 7th grade when he was 15, Steinback said at the time.

In his mid-20s, Morales worked construction, moving up from laborer to superintendent over the next decade.

Began business in 1985

By 1985, he formed his own road construction and excavation company, which eventually made $14 million a year in profits and paid him a salary exceeding $400,000 a year, according to court documents.

With his success, Morales became a prominent figure in the Hispanic community and became active in social, political and community activities, the records indicate.

A spokeswoman for Mayor Richard Daley declined to comment Wednesday evening.

Morales was arrested in Merida by agents of Mexico's Federal Investigations Agency with help from the U.S. Marshals Service, which has an office in Mexico City, said Diana Page, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City. Authorities did not know the precise location of Morales until his arrest, Page said.

Diario de Yucatan, a newspaper in Merida, reported that Morales was born in Merida and returned there in the past year because he still had family there.

Morales is being held at the Reclusorio Sur prison in Xochimilco, south of Mexico City.

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Key events

Marco Morales became the first person charged in the Silver Shovel investigation, when it became public in 1996. At the time, Morales was a Chicago contractor.

1996: Morales pleads guilty to distributing a kilogram of cocaine for $25,000 in 1994 to John Christopher, a government mole in the investigation.

1997: Morales pleads guilty to new charges of mail fraud and bribery. He admits to paying cash bribes to a Chicago official.

July 10, 1997: U.S. District Court judge sentences Morales to 59 months in prison and orders him to pay $185,000 in fines and restitution.

Nov. 3, 1997: Morales is ordered to surrender to begin serving his sentence.

Feb. 5, 1998: A bench warrant is issued for Morales' arrest after he fails to report to prison.

May 20, 2004: Mexican authorities arrest Morales.

Source: U.S. attorney's office

Chicago Tribune

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