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People v. Savaiano

SEPTEMBER 23, 1975.




APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Du Page County; the Hon. CARL A. SWANSON, Judge, presiding.


Defendant Pat Savaiano appeals from a conviction in the Du Page County Circuit Court, following a jury trial, of the crime of "Interest in Contracts" (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1971, ch. 102, §§ 3, 4). As a result, defendant Savaiano was sentenced to two years of probation, with the first 90 days to be spent in the county jail. He was also fined the sum of $1,000. The judgment also, following the statute, declared the office held by defendant vacated. As a result of an emergency motion in this court, the portion of the judgment which declared the official position held by defendant vacated was stayed until further order of this court.

On appeal in this court, the issue to be determined is whether Savaiano's conduct fell within the prohibitions of section 3 (ch. 102, § 3) referred to. That provision, which is one of several Illinois laws designed to proscribe self-dealing by public officials, reads, in relevant part, as follows:

"No person holding any office * * * may be in any manner interested, either directly or indirectly, in his own name or in the name of any other person, * * * in any contract or the performance of any work in the making or letting of which such officer may be called upon to act or vote. * * *" (Emphasis added.)

A violation of section 3 is made criminal by section 4 (ch. 102, §§ 3, 4). While it is now designated as a Class 4 felony under the Unified Code sentencing structure, the crime of "Interest in Contracts," at the time of the conduct of Savaiano with which we are concerned, was a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum of 5 years' imprisonment and a $1,000 fine and also by vacation of the office.

Factually, the record indicates that Savaiano, while a member of the Du Page County Forest Preserve Commission (hereinafter called "Commission") and while he was chairman of its Finance Committee (also known as the Land Acquisition Committee), had a one-fourth interest in 60 acres of land which the Commission sought to acquire. Defendant chaired Committee meetings during which negotiations were conducted with his co-owners. The Committee finally recommended that the land be purchased at a price agreed upon. Before the approval of the purchase by the full Commission, Savaiano sold his interest in the land. Subsequently, the deal was not consummated, and the Commission instead instituted condemnation proceedings. The indictment in this cause, which was returned by a special grand jury, charged that roughly between August 1, 1972, and December 31, 1972, Savaiano committed the offense of "Interest in Contracts," "in that while he was holding the elected office of a Du Page County Board Member and a member of the Du Page County Forest Preserve Commission, he had an interest as a part owner of real estate in Du Page County, which real estate was the subject of a proposed sales contract * * * with the Forest Preserve District and in the making and letting of said contract as said office holder, the Defendant may have been called upon to act or vote."

During the course of the trial and on appeal in this court, parties have taken contrasting positions as to the scope of section 3, to which we have referred. Defendant contends that there can be no violation of the statute without a completed contract, and that an official must possess the prohibited interest at the very time the contract is completed. The State, on the contrary, argues that the statute extends to proposed contracts, and that it is sufficient for the public officer to own the prohibited interest during active negotiations by the public body, even if the contract is never finally signed and executed. It must, therefore, be determined whether the indictment has charged an offense, under sections 3 and 4 (ch. 102, § 3, 4) referred to, by alleging that the defendant had an interest in a proposed sales contract. We must also determine whether it was proper to charge the jury that it was sufficient if defendant had an interest in making a contract rather than in an executed or completed contract itself.

From the record it is shown that Savaiano had been a member of the County Board and the County Forest Preserve Commission for some time and served as chairman of the Commission's Finance Committee (Land Acquisition Committee) for several years prior to the incident we are now considering. From the testimony of the real estate manager of the Commission, it appeared that the Finance Committee's responsibilities included making recommendations to the full Commission on acquiring property, both as to what property should be purchased and what price would be appropriate to be paid. In 1968, the Commission adopted a master plan for acquisition of open space throughout the County, based on a two-year-old plan drawn up by the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission. This master plan included, as possible property to be acquired, an 80-acre parcel which is involved in the instant case. Twenty acres in the southwest corner of this parcel were owned by three men, Demling, Kuhn, and Accorsi. In December of 1969, these three men and Savaiano each purchased a one-fourth interest in the 20 acres immediately to the east of the first lot, at a price of $4,000 per acre. Presumably, because of his political position, Savaiano chose an old friend, Bowman, to hold his one-fourth interest as a nominee.

In July 1970, at Demling's request, Savaiano brought the Commission's director and counsel together with Demling to discuss Demling's proposal to donate land to the Commission, with mining rights for gravel remaining in the private owners. In April 1971, defendant and his three co-owners purchased the 40-acre tract to the north of the 20-acre lots, at a cost of $4,500 an acre. By September 2, 1971, if not earlier, Savaiano was made aware of Phase III of the Commission's land acquisition plan (implementing the master plan), which included, specifically, the property heretofore described in which Savaiano had an interest. On September 16, 1971, Savaiano himself moved for approval of Phase III by the full Commission and the approval carried.

In March 1972, according to the testimony of Demling, Savaiano mentioned that he wanted to dispose of his interest in the land. Bowman testified that he first became aware of Savaiano's desire to sell his interest sometime in the summer of 1972. In May 1972, Demling consulted with the Commission about its desire to acquire the property and asked that the Commission pay a price of $10,000 an acre. The Commission proceeded by authorizing its real estate manager to secure a quick appraisal of the land. On August 3, 1972, Demling and Accorsi appeared before Savaiano's Committee to negotiate for the sale of the parcel. They renewed their request for a price of $10,000 per acre, but proposed an alternative of $6,000 per acre plus mining rights for 5 years. The Committee, in turn, suggested a price of $5,500 per acre which the owners apparently found unacceptable. All three of Savaiano's co-owners came to a Committee meeting on September 14, 1972, at which time a verbal understanding was reached between the three co-owners and the Committee that the land would be purchased for $6,750 an acre and that the owners would receive 15¢ per ton in royalties for all gravel mined over the following 20 years. On October 12, 1972, the Committee instructed the Commission counsel to draw up a proposed contract on those terms.

On December 1, 1972, Savaiano sold his interest in the 60 acres to Don Neuses at a price of $6,500 per acre. Eleven days later, on December 12, 1972, the full Commission approved the purchase of the land for $6,750 an acre but without the mining royalties. The sale to the Commission, however, was never consummated, apparently because the final Commission offer did not adhere to the verbal agreement reached between the owners and the Finance Committee in September. Thereafter, the Commission instituted eminent domain proceedings, and it was during the process of these proceedings that Savaiano's prior interest in the property was discovered.

The question specifically before this court now is, whether Savaiano's ownership of the land during the negotiations with the Commission for the purchase constituted a violation of section 3 (ch. 102, § 3) referred to. Specifically, we must determine whether the crime of "Interest in Contracts" as defined in section 3 can be committed when, despite extensive negotiations and a tentative understanding between the parties, no contract is ever executed or completed.

From a review of all the facts, and what we determine to be the applicable law, and the appropriate construction of the Act, we conclude that the defendant's conduct in this case was within the spirit and letter of the prohibitory language in section 3 (ch. 102, § 3) and that conviction of Savaiano should be affirmed. It is argued by defendant that there must be a contract or there can be no crime, since the statute prohibits a public official from being interested "in any contract or the performance of any work in the making or letting of which such officer may be called upon to act or vote."

We are aware of the principle of statutory construction being argued that "a criminal or penal statute is to be strictly construed in favor of an accused, and nothing is to be taken by intendment or implication against him beyond the obvious or literal meaning of such statutes." (People v. Eagle Food Centers, Inc. (1964), 31 Ill.2d 535, 539, 202 N.E.2d 473; People v. Isaacs (1967), 37 Ill.2d 205, 215, 226 N.E.2d 38.) If the statute were construed without further consideration of other principles, the use of the word "contract," in its technical legal sense, would make the existence of a binding contract at law an indispensable element of the offense. We must, however, give consideration to other rules of construction ...

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