Wednesday, July 16, 2008

HDO is dead, but members still call shots

BY MARK BROWN Sun-Times Columnist

The Hispanic Democratic Organization is officially dead. The group that became known, feared and loathed by its initials -- HDO -- filed its Final Report this week with the Illinois State Board of Elections, legally terminating its activities as a political committee.

Some would say HDO has been effectively deceased since the federal Hired Truck investigation of City Hall began focusing attention on its activities in 2004.

But they would also tell you the group's individual members continue to carry on pretty much as before Hired Truck, just not as effectively since the federal heat made the organization and its leaders too hot to handle, shutting off its patronage and fund-raising pipeline.

At the peak of its power, HDO controlled hundreds of jobs and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations -- all with the de facto if not explicit blessing of Mayor Daley.

Before closing the books, the organization doled out its last $32,575.

Roosevelt Media, a company affiliated with HDO founder and chairman Victor Reyes, got the biggest check, $10,411, while his sister Virginia, a lawyer, was paid $4,772 for unspecified services. Another $7,000 went to Alberto Guevara in connection with his brother Carlos Guevara's losing campaign this year against state Sen. Iris Martinez, one of several recent political rebukes to HDO.

The job holders, though, are still out there, still serving as loyal political armies in support of pretty much the same regional coordinators who controlled them during HDO's heyday. These HDO "cells" remain a potent political force, especially in legislative and aldermanic races.

In fact, for all the hoopla surrounding the federal investigation, it's notable how few of HDO's leaders were actually charged in connection with it.

The highest-ranking HDO leader indicted was former Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Al Sanchez, who ran a political street army of perhaps 100 patronage workers for HDO. A couple of his top lieutenants also got nailed.

Sanchez is scheduled to go on trial next March, and until his case is completed, nobody is ready to say for certain that the Hired Truck probe -- and its sister investigation of city hiring fraud -- are at an end. But many believe all signs point that way.

In case you've forgotten, Reyes has never been charged, even though he was named by the U.S. attorney's office as an unindicted "co-schemer" in the fraud trial of former City Hall patronage chief Robert Sorich and three associates.

Defense lawyer Tom Breen, who represents both Reyes and Sanchez but represented Reyes first, says he would not have taken Sanchez as a client if he "thought there was any chance of any charges being brought against Victor Reyes."

Others came to a similar conclusion when federal prosecutors raised no objection to Breen taking Sanchez's case. Often under those circumstances, they will complain about a conflict of interest.

Reyes left city employment in 2002, and it's possible the statute of limitations has run out on any potential case against him, although Breen won't make that assertion.

Instead, he says: "Quite frankly, I don't know what he would have done wrong."

Some of us assumed Reyes did everything Sorich did and more, but obviously, the U.S. attorney's office felt the evidence against him was weaker. The hiring fraud case stalled when Sorich declined to cooperate against higher-ups. Sorich is now serving a 43-month prison sentence.

A federal appeals court recently upheld the Sorich verdict -- and the legal theory under which the case was brought. Some speculate that will breathe new life into the city investigations, and as much as I'd like to think that, I've seen no signs of it.

There haven't been any indications Sanchez is inclined to turn "flipper" on his old associates either.

As one of its last acts when it still had some real money, HDO paid $140,000 to Breen's law firm in late 2006, partly as a retainer for future services. Breen declined to say whether the money was to be applied to representing Reyes or Sanchez or both.

In the meantime, there aren't a lot of outward signs Reyes' career was thrown off kilter by the federal attention. His political consulting firm continues to report an extensive list of lobbying clients in Springfield and City Hall, and he's still listed as a director of Park Bancorp.

The political officeholders most closely connected to HDO have continued to get re-elected, although they have been unable to extend their reach in efforts to pick off those deemed disloyal. A reminder: HDO was never as much about Hispanic political empowerment as about which Hispanics would have the power.

So, HDO is dead. Ding-dong?

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