CHICAGO, ILLINOIS – A City of Chicago zoning inspector found guilty of taking bribes has had his conviction overturned — in part, because the bribes weren’t big enough.
Dominick Owens, 46, twice took bribes of $600 to issue certifications of occupancy for four newly constructed homes he hadn’t inspected, a jury found following a trial in November. Originally suspected of taking more than $20,000 in bribes in 2005 and 2006, he was sentenced in March by Judge Blanche M. Manning to a year and a day in federal prison.
But the sentence was reversed Thursday in a ruling issued by the Seventh Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals. Justices ruled that Owens should not have been convicted because prosecutors didn’t prove the bribes he took were worth more than $5,000, as the law requires.
In their appeal, Owens’ attorneys did not dispute he took the two $600 bribes for homes on West 37th Place and on North Wolcott. Instead they argued that the certificates weren’t worth $5,000.
Circuit Judges William Bauer, Richard Posner and Diane Pamela Wood agreed.
In an opinion written by Bauer, they said that there were two ways to determine what the certificates were worth. There was the black market value of what someone was prepared to pay for one, which, at $600, was well below the $5,000 threshold, and there was what benefit the certificate would provide to the homeowners who greased his palm.
Prosecutors presented documents showing the homes were mortgaged from $200,000 to $600,000. But Bauer wrote that the certificates might have been issued later without a bribe, or after repairs had been made to the home, finding that the government had “failed to put forth any evidence linking the mortgages and the construction costs to the value of the issuance of the certificates.”
Owens’ attorney Michael Nash declared his client “delighted” with the ruling. He rejected the idea that Owens got off on a technicality, adding “it was because he was not guilty.”
Owens never served time for his conviction — he was allowed to remain free, pending his appeal.
He was one of 15 city employees netted as part of Operation Crooked Code, an undercover city-federal investigation into bribes for ignoring building code violations and speeding up paperwork. Other Crooked Code convictions are not believed to be threatened by the appellate court ruling.