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United States v. Reese

January 4, 2010

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
MICHAEL REESE



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Virginia M. Kendall

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

On September 15, 2009, a jury convicted Defendant Michael Reese ("Reese") of conspiracy to commit bribery in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 371 (Count One), and making false statements to federal agents in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1001(a)(2) (Counts Two and Three). Reese now moves for a judgment of acquittal or alternatively, a new trial. For the reasons stated, Reese's Motion for Judgment of Acquittal or a New Trial is denied.

BACKGROUND

Reese was a supervising building inspector in the City of Chicago Department of Buildings. In December 2008, Reese was indicted for conspiring with David Johnson ("Johnson"), another building inspector, Sorin Adrian Oros ("Oros"), a contractor and developer in Chicago, and others, to accept money from Oros and others, in exchange for issuing certificates of occupancy, expediting approvals on properties undergoing renovations and abating code violations.

At trial, Reese claimed that he was not involved in the bribes between Johnson and Oros, and the fact that he happened to work near them and know them did not mean that he was a participant in their illegal activity. During trial, the Government presented a number of witnesses and exhibits to demonstrate that Reese had been involved in a conspiracy to accept bribes in exchange for his assistance with building projects. First, Johnson testified that Oros paid him and Reese multiple times to make changes in the Department of Buildings' mainframe computer which stored the different zoning ordinances' requirements. Next, Oros testified that he paid Reese in exchange for changing information in the City's computer in order to facilitate the City's approvals of his renovation projects. Oros also testified that Reese referred him to Johnson to make the necessary mainframe changes after Reese lost access to the City's database. The Government also presented the testimony of Catherine Romasanta ("Romasanta"), a former expediter. Romasanta testified that she first met Reese when she worked for M3 Plumbing, a company owned by Benny Garneata ("Garneata"), a contractor. Romasanta paid Reese bribes in exchange for favorable treatment on City building and inspection related issues. One such bribe occurred in 2006, and was given for the purpose of obtaining an easy permit for a porch construction project. Reese obtained the easy permit for Romasanta with Johnson's assistance. Romasanta also testified that as part of her responsibilities when she worked for Garneata, she distributed gift cards to City officials during the Christmas season. The gift cards were distributed as gratuities to ensure continued favorable treatment. On one occasion, Romasanta delivered a gift card to Reese on Garneata's behalf. In 2005, around Christmas time, Romasanta received a telephone call from Reese, wherein he asked her whether he would be receiving anything from Garneata that year.

After deliberating, the jury found Reese guilty of conspiracy to commit bribery, in violation of 18 U.S.C. 371, and making false statements to federal agents, in violation of 18 U.S.C. 1001(a)(2). Reese now seeks a judgment of acquittal or a new trial under Fed. R. Civ. P. 29(c) and 33, claiming: 1) insufficient evidence to support the jury's verdict; 2) the Court erred when it allowed the Government to introduce the "2005-Gift Card list" (Gov. Ex. 26) during Romasanta's testimony; 3) the Court erred when it admitted testimony regarding pre-2005 acts of bribery involving Reese and Johnson; and 4) the Court erred when it denied Reese's objections to proposed jury instructions. Reese also asserts that his right to a fair trial was impinged by the Government's late production of phone records, which denied defense counsel sufficient time to adequately respond to the Government's evidence.

DISCUSSION

I. Motion for Judgment of Acquittal

A motion for judgment of acquittal under Rule 29 challenges the sufficiency of the evidence against the defendant. See Fed. R. Crim. P. 29. Such a motion should be denied if, after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, "any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt." United States v. Hicks, 368 F.3d 801, 804 (7th Cir. 2004). A conviction should not be overturned unless "the record is devoid of evidence from which a reasonable jury could find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt." United States v. Curtis, 324 F.3d 501, 505 (7th Cir. 2003) (citing United States v. Menting, 166 F.3d 923, 928 (7th Cir. 1999)).

The Court now turns to the evidence presented for each charge against Reese.

A. Count I - Conspiracy to Commit Bribery

Count I of the Indictment alleged that Reese conspired with Johnson, Oros, and others known and unknown to the Grand Jury, to accept money from Oros and others, said money being given and accepted with the intent to influence and reward Reese and Johnson in connection with any business, transaction, and series of transactions of the City involving things of value of $5,000 or more, namely, issuing certificates of occupancy, expediting approvals on properties undergoing renovations, and abating code violations in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 666(a), all in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 371. To sustain a conviction for conspiracy to commit bribery under 18 U.S.C. § 371, the Government was required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Reeseagreed with at least one other individual tocommit an unlawful act--here, to accept money in exchange for issuing certificates of occupancy, expediting approvals on properties undergoing renovations and abating code violations, and that Reese knowingly and intentionally joined the agreement. See United States v. Anderson, 580 F.3d 639, 646 (7th Cir. 2009); United States v. Oros, 578 F.3d 703, 710 (7 th Cir. 2009). However, the agreement need not be formal and the government may establish it through circumstantial evidence. See United States v. Corson, 579 F.3d 804, 811 (7th Cir. 2009); see also United States v. Gilmer, 534 F.3d 696, 701 (7th Cir. 2008) (government must prove either an implicit or explicit understanding to work together to commit the offense).

Reese contends that the Government did not satisfy its burden of proving him guilty of conspiracy to commit bribery because it failed to prove the existence of a single conspiracy that Reese knew of and agreed to join.

Here, contrary to Reese's contention, the record demonstrates that the evidence presented at trial was sufficient for the jury to find Reese guilty of conspiracy to commit bribery beyond a reasonable doubt. There was ample evidence to support the jury's finding that Reese agreed with Johnson, Oros and others to accept money, knowing that said money was being given to influence him in connection with business transactions involving the City of Chicago. Johnson testified that Oros paid him and Reese multiple times to get building plans approved and to manipulate the Department of Buildings' mainframe computer which stored the different zoning ordinances' requirements. Specifically, Johnson testified that in the spring of 2005, Reese approached him and asked if he knew anyone who had the ability to alter the number of units in a building as reflected in the Buildings Department mainframe computer database and when Johnson indicated that he did know someone, Reese referred Oros to Johnson. Johnson testified that Oros then began calling him for unit changes and that after he effectuated the change, Oros would pay him and Reese $1500; he would keep $500 and Reese would keep $1000. Later in their relationship, Johnson would effectuate the unit changes for Oros directly in exchange for ...


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