CHICAGO (CBS) — The feds call it Operation Crooked Code. So far, it’s snared 29 developers, contractors and city inspectors for giving bribes or taking them.
Hundreds of dollars -– sometimes, thousands of dollars — in payoffs were made to building and zoning inspectors to ignore code violations in buildings being converted into condominiums.
“It was shocking to the extent that it was considered normal,” Juliet Sorensen, a former assistant U.S. attorney who helped prosecute most of the cases, said. “It was just business as usual.”
But what about the people caught in the middle — the homeowners who unwittingly bought condos riddled with code violations?
Caitlin Colvin is one of them. She paid $295,000 for one of the eight condos converted from old apartments at 4444 N. Sheridan Rd.
“When I purchased it I thought that the building was up to code,” she said.
Little did she know that the building owner and developer, Teofil Scorte, would ultimately plead guilty to bribery charges in the Crooked Code case.
He cooperated with the government by testifying against some of his co-defendants. In Colvin’s building, Scorte testified that he made a $4,000 payoff to a plumbing inspector.
“So the plumbing did not have to be ripped out and replaced,” Sorensen explained.
Building tenants have had burst pipes and flooding, heating and air-conditioning problems. Worst of all, experts say, the building is not structurally safe.
“They say … the ceiling could cave in and collapse,” Colvin said.
Michael Merchant, the city’s new Building Department commissioner, says the city approved plans that called for removing load-bearing walls and replacing them with steel support beams and posts.
“And they didn’t put them in,” Merchant said.
The city didn’t catch it and other code violations until long after the condos were finished and sold. The department sued Scorte and his company Algin Construction to make the repairs.
They failed to respond and now the building owners have to fix it. The most immediate repair — adding steel beams and posts from the basement to the third floor of the building – will cost an estimated $100,000.
Colvin can’t pay her share and has to move. As a result, she’ll lose her $60,000 deposit and past mortgage payments.
“This is just one huge mess and it just kept getting worse and worse and worse,” she said.
“It’s the result of a bad developer,” Merchant said. “He had a disregard for the safety of the future occupants of this building and that is something that we cannot tolerate and we have to try to prevent in the future.”
But Scorte, who received 2 years’ probation on the federal charges, still gets city building permits under his new construction company, Halo Design.
“We’re exploring what we can do right now,” Merchant said.
He also says he’s changing building department procedures to try to deter future corruption scandals. So far, this scandal has resulted in sentences of up to five years for 15 building and zoning inspectors.
As for Scorte, he says he relied on the advice of his architect and carpenter when it came to the opening up the spaces in the condos and did not realize it caused structural defects.
“It was not about cutting corners,” he said. “We just thought that, aesthetically, it looked nicer.”
Scorte admits he made mistakes but says when he ran out of money to correct them.
“I feel horrible about what happened,” Scorte said. “I feel horrible about the mistakes.”
So what can you do to protect yourself from mistakes like these? Building Department officials say that when buying a new home or condo in the city you should always demand a certificate of occupancy. That will ensure that it has at least been inspected by the city and passed the building code.
They also say you can look up permit, inspection and violation information on a building by visiting the building department’s website.