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United States v. Alexander

August 13, 1984

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,
v.
PETER C. ALEXANDER, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 82 CR 386-1 -- James B. Moran, Judge.

Pell and Coffey, Circuit Judges, and Nichols, Senior Circuit Judge.*fn*

Author: Pell

PELL, Circuit Judge

Defendant Peter Alexander was an attorney representing clients before the Cook County Board of Appeals, which reviews real estate assessments made by the Cook County Assessor's Office for purposes of determining the real estate tax owed. Defendant filed complaints before the Board on behalf of clients dissatisfied with their property tax assessments. Assessments are substantially based on subjective criteria and can affect large sums of money, so it should come as no surprise that several Board employees succumbed to the temptation of deciding cases on the basis of bribes paid by attorneys rather than on the merits of the complaint. Defendant's involvement in the bribery scheme resulted in conviction on 15 counts of mail fraud, 18 U.S.C. § 1341, and one count of racketeering in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1962(c). The district court sentenced defendant to serve 30 days in a work release program, five years probation, and to forfeit $51,874.53 in legal fees. Defendant challenges both his conviction and the forfeiture order.*fn1

I Facts

Defendant is not the first participant in the bribery scheme to have his derelictions become the basis of an opinion by this court. The scheme has been discussed previously in United States v. McManigal, 708 F.2d 276 (7th Cir.), vacated, 464 U.S. 979, 104 S. Ct. 419, 78 L. Ed. 2d 355, aff'd on remand, 723 F.2d 580 (1983) and United States v. Gorny, 732 F.2d 597 (7th Cir. 1984). We will review the scheme so far as it pertains to defendant. Further information on the scheme can be found in McManigal and Gorny.

The Board was headed by two elected commissioners. During the time of the bribery scheme the commissioners were Seymour Zaban and Harry Semrow. The commissioners were obligated to review complaints after the taxpayer or his attorney presented his case to a hearing officer, who would prepare a file on the case. Because of the high volume of complaints, the commissioners' deputies had the same authority to act on complaints as the commissioners. The scheme involved Zaban's deputy, Donald Erskine, Semrow's deputies, Thomas Lavin and Robert Hosty, and James Woodlock, who was in charge of computer operations at the Board.

The scheme involved granting reductions in assessments in return for payments made by attorneys. A reduction could only be granted upon the concurrence of both commissioners, neither of whom were involved in the scheme. Both Erskine and Lavin would either forge the signature of their respective commissioners or sign their commissioner's name and subscript their own, as they were authorized to do. Erskine, Lavin, and Woodlock would keep the fraudulent files from being presented to the commissioners. Lavin left the Board in December 1977, and Hosty became Semrow's deputy. Arrangements were made so that Lavin could continue to forge Semrow's signature, and Hosty agreed to subscript Semrow's initials with his own on fraudulent files when necessary.

Defendant was one of five partners in the firm of Welfeld & Chaimson and was the partner responsible for the firm's real estate tax work. Defendant and Erskine were close personal friends, and defendant became involved in the scheme in 1976.The evidence revealed that defendant made payments to Erskine, Woodlock, and Hosty in return for fraudulent reductions.

II Sufficiency of the Indictment

A. Intangible Rights

Defendant challenges the sufficiency of the indictment to charge a violation of the mail fraud statute. In relevant part the mail fraud statute reads:

Whoever, having devised . . . any scheme or artifice to defraud . . . for the purpose of executing such scheme or artifice or attempting so to do, places in any post office or authorized depository for mail matter, any matter or thing whatever to be sent or delivered by the Postal Service . . . or knowingly causes to be delivered by mail . . . any such matter ...


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