Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Fugitive in City Hall case not so defiant this time

'Who am I? I'm a little ant compared to these people.'

By Oscar Avila | Tribune foreign correspondent October 9, 2007

MEXICO CITY - A decade ago, Chicago contractor Marco Morales fled to Mexico to avoid going to prison and testifying against a top city official he bribed. As he sits in a Mexico City prison awaiting possible extradition to Chicago, Morales has undergone a change of heart. He's ready to talk to prosecutors, but he's not sure if he has much to offer, since he has been away from Chicago for so long. In an hourlong jailhouse interview with a Tribune reporter Monday, Morales said he was caught by surprise when Mexican agents arrested him last month. He considers himself a small-time criminal who has become the victim of a political vendetta by U.S. authorities. Morales said he has come to terms with the fact that he likely will be extradited to the U.S. within months. He now says that he would cooperate with federal prosecutors if it would reduce his prison time for charges that he sold 2 pounds of cocaine to an FBI informant. "I'm going to see if they can knock [that sentence] down," Morales said in his first interview since his arrest. But Morales, who pleaded guilty to bribery and mail fraud in 1996 as part of the wide-ranging Operation Silver Shovel probe, said he isn't sure he can provide any information on Chicago corruption that prosecutors would find useful. "What can I offer them that's going to be worth something? It's been 12 years," Morales said. "I'm a convict to a certain extent. What's my testimony against somebody else's?" At the time of his guilty plea, in 1996, Morales said he bribed Anthony Pucillo, a former high-ranking Transportation Department official under Mayor Richard Daley. Pucillo, who has denied wrongdoing, ran a pro-Daley army of city workers, according to court testimony. In addition to Morales, Operation Silver Shovel netted the convictions of six Chicago aldermen and eleven others. One alderman was acquitted. In 1997, after his conviction, Morales fled to Mexico instead of reporting to a federal prison in Michigan to serve his 59-month sentence. In 2004, he successfully fought off an extradition attempt because the statute of limitations on the bribery and fraud charges had expired.

At the time of the first extradition bid, Morales said he had been threatened at gunpoint if he testified and fled for his family's safety. Now that so much time has passed, he said Monday, he no longer feels at risk. Last year, federal prosecutors charged Morales in the drug case again in a new bid to win his extradition. Prosecutors had dropped that charge as part of his initial plea agreement. The U.S. government has not yet filed a formal extradition request for Morales, but officials have until mid-November to do so. U.S. officials noted that Mexico has been more cooperative this year in extraditing suspects back to the U.S. In addition, drug crimes are specifically eligible for extradition under a bilateral agreement between the U.S. and Mexico. Unlike the loophole Morales used in the corruption case, the statute of limitations in drug cases extends to 17 years and has not expired in his case. Those factors mean that fighting extradition this time will "be a little more complicated," said Mauro Negrete, a member of Morales' legal team. In fact, Morales, 62, has lost the swagger he displayed in an interview with the Tribune after his first arrest in Mexico three years ago. Then, he was confident he would avoid extradition and proved to be right. Now, Morales admits to a sense of pessimism. Before his recent arrest, his restaurant, a lunch counter in the Yucatan city of Merida, went out of business. Morales said he had been living on a $400 monthly union pension check while caring for his ailing parents. Morales once again denied claims that he has received money from his son, who has collected millions of dollars in city contracts since Morales fled to Mexico. In Monday's interview, Morales fought back tears as he described the telephone calls he makes to his parents from prison with a calling card. "When you call them, they start crying," he said. "It gets to you." The evidence against Morales in the drug case appears solid: the FBI informant, a crooked waste hauler, videotaped the sale. Morales, however, said he considers the drug case to be "entrapment." Negrete said attorneys have not decided whether that will be their official defense. If convicted on the drug charge, Morales faces as many as 40 years in prison. He said he never thought authorities would keep pursuing him but also said he now realizes that U.S. Atty. Patrick Fitzgerald would never let him skip out on a plea deal, especially one focused on City Hall corruption.

"Who am I? I'm a little ant compared to these people," Morales said. "It's a vendetta. They figure they couldn't get me the first time. They're going to get me the second time. [The prosecutors] are not going to give up. "They're going to make a show: 'Nobody gets away from us no matter where they go.'" "It's now personal," Negrete added. "It has surpassed the judicial sphere." Although Morales acknowledged that bribing city officials was wrong, he said he would do it again because it was necessary for a businessman to get ahead in Chicago. For now, he has started making a new life for himself in the North Prison, a high-security facility on the fringes of the city. He watches movies on the communal TV and cooks eggs for breakfast in the kitchen. Morales sleeps in a large room with seven other inmates, most of them accused of white-collar crimes. Inmates don't have to wear prison uniforms, and Morales arrived at the interview in a linen shirt, khaki pants, white tennis shoes and no handcuffs. He has one accessory: a black cloth rosary that he wears around his wrist. Morales, who said he is Catholic, conceded that he doesn't use the rosary to pray but wears it because almost all the inmates wear one. "I'm not really a person who goes to church every week," he said. Instead, the man who parlayed City Hall connections, and cash payoffs, into a lucrative living sees the rosaries as a business opportunity. "I'm going to start making them and selling them," he said. "Something to get by until I see what happens."

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