Monday, March 6, 2006

Two Major Political Stories Today

#1. Topinka’s former Deputy Treasurer Says Her Closeness to George Ryan Produced Checks for Her Campaign Delivered by Commercial Drivers’ License Employee and She Ordered Cellini Document Shredded.

As controversy swirled over Jim Oberweis’ charge concerning Judy Baar Topinka and her extreme closeness to George Ryan—a fact she heatedly denies—the number two executive in the Illinois State Treasurer’s office during the early years of Judy Baar Topinka’s tenure has revealed, in sworn testimony taken by the Oberweis campaign that
  • she ordered the shredding of a key document involving two hotels which spurred considerable controversy to be shredded, and that
  • her closeness to then secretary of state George Ryan led to a state worker delivering checks to her campaign from the infamous McCook drivers’ license facility where commercial drivers licenses were purportedly received from bribes; also that
  • employees of her state Senate office worked on her first Treasurer
    campaign and were paid by the state with her acquiescence, a fact that could be prosecutable if further verified.

  • Martin R. Kovarik, of Kenosha, Wis., 73, who is now retired, who was her chief of staff when she first ran for treasurer and was deputy state treasurer, contacted the Oberweis campaign to attest to the truth of a TV commercial produced by the campaign that blamed Topinka for trying to write off a debt owed the state for two hotels by prominent GOP Springfield businessman-contributor, Bill Cellini. The Topinka effort to eliminate the debt by having the state take over the property was overruled by then state attorney general Jim Ryan. Topinka, now a candidate for governor, blasted the Oberweis commercial as being inaccurate. Kovarik met with Oberweis officials and in a sworn deposition declared the commercial correct in every detail. Kovarik left the Treasurer’s office because of a dispute with his ex-wife concerning matters that had no pertinence to the treasurer’s office.

    It so happens that I knew Marty Kovarik at that time; we were and are friends although when the Oberweis campaign released this material after he contacted officials of the campaign this disclosure and his views on it were news to me. As one who knew Topinka and Kovarik while she was a state senator and during her first treasurer’s campaign, I can say that Kovarik was the top aide in her office and was the guru of her successful treasurer’s campaign as well, specializing in computer technology as well as commonsense political strategy.. Nor was his professional career spent entirely in politics: he received a degree in chemistry from Wayne State, holding down posts in chemistry research at Wyandotte Chemicals, worked at Upjohn at New Haven, Connecticut in product development; opened the Houston plant for Upjohn; later managed sales for Upjohn’s Palmer Chemicals division; also held executive posts for Witco Chemicals and InstaFoam in Joliet, IL. A “natural” in languages, based on his experience as a child when he could speak Czech before English in his assignments overseas for business he could communicate in 17 different languages, including German, Japanese, Chinese and Scandinavian. After he retired he was ready to go to the Peace Corps, to be sent to take a position in the Czech republic to teach computer skills.

    In the sworn statement to lawyer Kent D. Sinson, of Sinson & Sinson and transcribed by Jennifer Vravis of Chicago, a professional court stenographer, , Kovarik says he met Topinka in 1988, began as a volunteer, carried the title chief of staff and after a year began to be paid, at first modestly, about $10,000 a year. His job was to modernize the computer system of the office and carried the title chief of staff. She ran for reelection as state senator in 1992 while Kovarik worked for her and the following year initiated a campaign for state treasurer. Kovarik assumed some duties in her campaign and after she was elected in 1994 was named by her as deputy treasurer.

    State Senate Employees Working on Her Campaign

    The questioner asked Kovarik if in the campaign for treasurer her state senate employees worked on her campaign. Kovarik responded: “…It would be unusual to not have them participate. It was expected of them.” He named the people in her office who were paid by the state while working for the Topinka campaign: “These people were all paid with state money that came out of Springfield as their payroll. They worked in and out of state business and campaign business and it was simply a matter of going from one place to another. If they wanted to write letters for the campaign there was no hesitation at all to do it on the computers because the computers we had were owned by the campaign…”

    The questioner asked, “So there was no effort even made to keep the efforts of the campaign and the efforts of the State business separate?” Kovarik answered, “Absolutely none. Absolutely none.”

    Questioner: “You said it was the expectation of Judy Baar Topinka that these people would do campaign work on state time. Did she—did you witness her at all specifically tell these people this? How would she convey that?” Kovarik responded, “She would give them work assignments and would bring stuff to them…In the evening hours she would take the time with either a computer or typewriter and she’d type like fury and make notes, voluminous notes, and she would write a note to [a woman’s name] and she would write a note to [another woman’s name] and she’d write a note to [another woman’s name], she’d write a note to [another woman’s name] and she’d write a note to me and in the morning she’d distribute those. These were work assignments that she’d expect you to complete in some reasonable time and there was no differentiation between campaign or state, none whatsoever.”

    Money from George Ryan to Topinka

    Kovarik said one George Valasco once called him on the phone at the office and said he wanted to come over and talk. “And we arranged a time and he came into the office and introduced himself again. We went into a little office and closed the door and I said, `What can I do for you?’ …He told me that he worked for the McCook office of the secretary of state’s facility where they did the commercial testing” which he described as testing “truck drivers for drivers’ licenses…I might add that George was a tester. He would test people to drive for CDL [Commercial drivers’ licenses]…I’m going to make my best guess as far as when that was that it was in the early spring or summer of 1994. Mr. Vakasco asked if—if he could help in any way whatsoever to—with our fund-raising and I explained to him, `you bet, We can get all the help we need, all the help we can get.’” It was in the state senate office as well as the campaign office.

    Said Kovarik: “The first conversation he asked if we could use some help in raising funds and I explained that we could use help because it’s the lowest office in the constitutional race and it’s sort of lost when it comes to fund-raising, people just don’t pay attention. And he said, `Okay, I’ll see what I can do. And about a week later he called again and asked if he could come in and he did and he reached in his pocket and he brought out a wad—and I say wad—several bills—totaling of about $4- or $500 and asked if we could accept that for the campaign and I said ‘Well, who’s it from?’ And he said, `from some of my friends’ and I said, `well, I need names’ and he said, `well, I can’t give you any names.’ And I said, `well, unfortunately, I can’t take your money unless I know where it comes from. You must show attribution.’ And he said, `well, would you accept checks?’ And I said, `sure,’

    “`Okay,’ put the money back in his pocket, we chatted a little bit and a week or so later he came back and now he’s giving me checks—and if my memory is correct, it was like $600 but I can’t remember exactly what it was in the first group of checks and they were from drivers, drivers’ schools, trucking companies, that’s about it, you know, just nothing unusual, just it was for me, but that’s about it. I said, `who are these people?’ And he says, `friends of mine. They like her work.’ I said, `they don’t know her. What do you mean they like her work?’ He said, `don’t worry about it. They just want to give her some money’ and that was it.

    “And this went on several different times during the campaign and at some point in time—and I can’t remember when it was, I said, `George, why are you doing this?’ And he says because George asked me to. I said, `George?’ He says, `yeah, the boss.’” The questioner said, “Now when he said `George, the boss’ who did you think he was talking about?” Kovarik said, “I knew he was talking about George Ryan, then secretary of state.’” Kovarik said there were three or four checks each time his visitor called, from $100 to $200 a check.” Kovarik said he showed Topinka the checks and she said, “that’s great.” She did not express concern that the checks came from driving schools: “Not one iota.”

    The Cellini Hotels Deal.

    Concerning Springfield power-broker Bill Cellini, Kovarik said Cellini always introduced Topinka at meetings where GOP county chairmen met before going to the state fair to mark Republican Day. After asserting that Sangamon county was essential to any statewide Republican candidate, Kovarik described what he knew about the Cellini hotels deal that Topinka figured in. “During the Jim Thompson administration—and I believe it was the first year that he served as governor—and in the days of Jerry Cosentino [the Democratic state treasurer] a document was prepared that would allow the state of Illinois to buy a hotel i.e. the Holiday Inn at Collinsville.

    “The management of that hotel was going to Cellini and friends, I guess—I don’t know how you’d describe their organization—and there was crafted into the deal was they had to show a certain percentage of profit in order to have to make any payments on the original loan; and for some reason like, $14 million was the value of the original loan but I could be wrong. It was a lot of money. More money than I make in a lifetime. And there was never any payment made on that—on the principal of that loan. The interest kept getting added every year and it had, I believe, a 20-year life. I’m not sure of that but it had some life expectancy that had to be closed in a period of time. It was about—from memory again because it’s been a long time--$44 million at the time of the closure and the now state treasurer, Judy Baar Topinka, said she had to get rid of this debt and wanted to foreclose.” The contract covered the hotel in Collinsville and the Renaissance [then so named] in Springfield.

    By “foreclose” Kovarik said “she wanted to get rid of the property for cash to recover from—some value for it. The state would take over the property and either sell it or manage it—you know, management would have a pretty tough deal to do.” He said the deal was done “during my absence,” adding, “I was not in on any part of the deal” but “at the end Cellini would assume ownership of the property and literally be forgiven, if not entirely, for a major portion of the indebtedness and in recalling and having been reminded of it very recently, then Jim Ryan, Attorney General struck, or looked at the deal and evaluated it and said it is not a good deal, back away but it received a great deal of coverage, a great deal of criticism that here Bill Cellini would assume ownership of the property not having paid a penny of it—for it, not having paid any interest on it in the entire time that it was there [and] that the state ha advanced the money.”

    The Search for the Agreement, Its Discovery and Her Order to Shred.

    An original contract existed and “a great deal of time was spent looking for the document.” Kovarik said they looked high and low for the document arranged under Jerry Cosentino and couldn’t find it. Topinka told the press that “it was nowhere to be found”. Kovarik said, “understand, Counselor, that she was telling these people [the press] that she couldn’t find this document for at least two weeks. So it was pretty well stressed that these documents didn’t exist. We’ve been up one end, down the other, we’ve turned every piece of paper, we’ve gone through all the filing cabinets, you know, all of that had to be explained.”

    One day after Kovarik and Topinka returned from Springfield, they were at her home. “We had just come in and were unloading bags and so on and her phone rang and I said, `Do you want me to get that?’ and she said `yeah, get it. It’s probably the damn Springfield office.’ `Okay.’ So I picked up the phone and there was Jim Howard at the other end and I said, `what’s up, guy?’” Jim Howard was the public relations staffer in the office.

    “I said, `Hey, Jim, what’s up?’ And he said, `Guess what I got’ …and I said, `no telling, what you got?’ And he says, `I got the document.’ `What document?’ He said, `the deal for the hotels.’…involving Cellini, the hotel, the indebtedness, the structure, everything. And I put the telephone on my shoulder so he couldn’t hear me talking, and I said, turned to the Treasurer and said, `Jim Howard’s on the phone. He found the contract,, he the document.’ She said, `what do you want me to do with it?’ were her words and I said, `he wants to know what to do.’ `I don’t want to see it. I don’t want to have anything to do with it. It doesn’t exist. I told everybody that it wasn’t around Get rid of it.’ `What do you want him to do with it?’ `I don’t care. Shred the damn thing.’”

    Kovarik saw the document later on. He did not shred it and to the best of his knowledge Howard didn’t shred it. Kovarik saw the document later on “and in neither case to the best of my knowledge was there any money given—or paid by the state for those properties.” Not long ago, Kovarik said, he was watching TV “and I saw the current treasurer, Judy Baar Topinka, lambasting Jim Oberweis for telling untruths, being dishonest over the issue of the hotels and the shredding of documents. Having looked at the Oberweis campaign ad, there was nothing untrue about it. There was nothing misleading about it. Everything that was in that ad was 100 percent accurate. I had called Jim Leahy because I knew he was with the Oberweis campaign and I said, `Look, I ‘ve met Oberweis on a couple of occasions. He’s an honorable man. He’s a businessman. His goals are very much the same as mine were when I went into government and that is that government can run better on private sector ideas and concepts and he didn’t deserve the maltreatment that Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka was dishing out to him.”

    Import of the Disclosure.

    As she rose in political influence, Judy Baar Topinka has been exhibiting difficulty telling the truth. I know this first-hand, ever since she appeared on my radio show as State Chairman and refused to endorse the reelection candidacy of Sen. Peter Fitzgerald—denied it not once but several times, speculating that perhaps she could do so as Riverside GOP committeeman but not as State Chairman. This was long before Fitzgerald had determined not to run. After the heat came on her for refusing to endorse, she announced that I should “take the wax out of my ears” because she did endorse him. It was a stunning statement in that her refusal to endorse was carried across many Midwest states on a Sunday night and was heard by many political junkies including the other guest on the show, Steve Brown, spokesman for Speaker Mike Madigan!

    This disclosure from Marty Kovarik could be dismissed as pay-back from a disgruntled ex-aide except for the detailed recall that Kovarik has and the important role he played in her state office and political campaigns. While the disclosure might well be regarded as sour grapes, the fact that by Kovarik’s sworn statement she knowingly received money from the McCook commercial drivers license facility from people who didn’t know her is not criminal but is highly revelatory of the kind of politics she played in the rough-and-tumble era where George Ryan ran fast and loose, rewarding his friends, punishing his enemies in a style that has become familiar as vintage nineteenth century-style power politics with no subtlety. Obviously the Topinka forces will attempt to sully Kovarik’s name, declare she didn’t know anything about checks and that if checks were received Kovarik was responsible etc.

    When she goes on TV to deny it, just remember: she’s the lady who appeared on a 50,000-watt radio station, refused to endorse Fitzgerald to the hearing of thousands of listeners and declares insouciantly that what they heard is wrong.


    1. Tom,

      I wouldn't be so quick to make him a conservative hero.

      These facts given and level of detail are at odds with the statement he gave over a decade ago on the matter. Alsom the people he names vehemently deny his accusations.

      I'm afraid that it will take more than another statement to boost Kovarik's credibility or Oberweis' campaign. Disinterest third-party corroboration would help.

      Oberweis' stooping to this level creates another opening for Bill Brady. I wouldn't be surprised if he outpolled Jim on the 21st.

    2. Perhaps much of this story will degenerate into a "he said/she said" scenario. However, I read that Kovarik refutes JBT's claim that she "never" personally knew or associated with Bill Cellini. Her denial of any association with Cellini is quite broad and quite unbelievable, and I think Kovarik's statements on her associations with Cellini might be the biggest bombshell he has against her.