FBI: Gardiner may have given developer ticket to Lightfoot inaugural during bribery scheme
Four years ago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot earned a standing ovation during her inaugural address when she lectured members of a new City Council about profiting from their office.
“Reform is here,” she declared.
It turns out a ticket to hear Lightfoot’s scolding may have become part of a lengthy FBI bribery investigation into one of the very Council members on the stage that day: Ald. Jim Gardiner (45th).
Gardiner may have provided a developer with a floor ticket to the event, court records show, and investigators took it as a sign that Gardiner felt “indebted” to that developer.
“Floor ticket,” Gardiner allegedly boasted in a text message.
That’s according to a series of FBI affidavits recently unsealed in redacted form that also suggest the feds’ investigation of Gardiner was stymied by their inability to view “the vast majority” of 4,000 text messages. The affidavits show the feds spent a year struggling to view the messages.
Gardiner has not been charged with any criminal wrongdoing as a result of the probe, which dates back more than three years. He was reelected this year, unlike Lightfoot who left office earlier this month.
Gardiner’s staff did not immediately comment when contacted by the Chicago Sun-Times.
The affidavits reveal that, even within a moment that seemed to signal a new day in Chicago politics, another potential scandal brewed in the background.
The Chicago Tribune earlier this month reported on one of the affidavits, filed in July 2020. Though heavily redacted, the records indicate the feds were looking into whether Gardiner took a $5,000 bribe payment from a developer to stall the Point at Six Corners. The feds had developed a cooperating source in March 2020, the records say.
The July 2020 affidavit sought a judge’s permission to search an Apple iCloud account and seize certain text messages sent between February 2019 and July 2020. The iCloud account was used by “a private Chicago businessman,” records show. A series of separately filed affidavits explain in part what happened next.
Apple produced the information sought by the feds in an encrypted format in August 2020, the records show. That data was first sent to a unit at FBI headquarters to be decrypted, then sent back to FBI Chicago, and then to the FBI’s Regional Computer Forensics Laboratory to be analyzed and formatted. That process was completed in mid-October 2020.
The analysis showed that someone used that iCloud account to send or receive about 4,000 messages between February 2019 and July 2020. But “due to an unexplained technological problem” agents were not able to view “the vast majority” of them.
Agents then spent the next eight months trying to determine why the messages could not be viewed, it said. A prosecutor consulted with the Department of Justice’s Computer Crimes and Intellectual Property Section. And the feds tried giving the original encrypted data to the Regional Computer Forensics Laboratory in June 2021. It had no luck.
Then, “in a final attempt to decrypt,” the original data was sent to FBI headquarters. As of July 7, 2021, the messages still couldn’t be viewed, according to the affidavits.
The feds eventually sought permission in August 2021 to search a cell phone in hopes of recovering the messages, explaining to a judge that “reasonably diligent efforts have failed to recover” them.
It’s not clear whether the feds ever saw the messages. But the probe does not appear to have led to any criminal charges.
Joseph Fitzpatrick, spokesman for Chicago’s U.S. attorney’s office, declined to comment.
Meanwhile, the feds also pointed in the affidavits to messages they had successfully recovered. They said the messages “significantly strengthened” probable cause in the case and corroborated their cooperating source “in several significant ways.”
They referred to “non-official” actions that Gardiner had allegedly taken — revealed by the messages — that suggested Gardiner felt “indebted” to the developer at issue in the case. The feds called those actions “highly significant” because they took place in May 2019, around the time they suspected Gardiner had taken the $5,000 cash bribe.
In one text exchange, Gardiner allegedly offered that person a floor ticket “to what is believed to be the inauguration ceremony of the newly elected Chicago City Council members,” the feds explained, because the developer had been “very very good” to him.
The affidavit says the text exchange occurred on May 19, 2020, but the context suggests the year was a typo. The cash payment at issue in the probe allegedly occurred in May 2019. A footnote points to May 19, 2019. And the city held inaugural ceremonies featuring Lightfoot’s speech on May 20, 2019.
“I got u a floor ticket U have been very very good to me,” Gardiner allegedly wrote in a text. “If u want to go, go. If not, but let me know.”
The developer allegedly replied, “Ok I’m in[,] see you tomorrow.”
“I put ticket inside yr door,” Gardiner allegedly wrote.
And then Gardiner allegedly stressed, “Floor ticket.”