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United States of America v. Dumitru Curescu

June 29, 2011

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, PLAINTIFF,
v.
DUMITRU CURESCU, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. Joan H. Lefkow

REVISED OPINION AND ORDER

Dumitru Curescu was convicted of conspiracy to bribe a City of Chicago zoning inspector (Count I) and bribery of a zoning inspector (count IV) in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 2, 371, and 666(a)(2). Before the court are Curescu's post-trial motions for judgment of acquittal and a new trial. For the following reasons, the motions [#394, 395] will be denied.

LEGAL STANDARDS

Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 29 provides, in pertinent part, that "the court on the defendant's motion must enter a judgment of acquittal of any offense for which the evidence is insufficient to sustain a conviction." Fed. R. Crim. P. 29(a). When requesting a judgment of acquittal under Rule 29, a defendant "faces a nearly insurmountable hurdle [because] . . . [the court] consider[s] the evidence in the light most favorable to the Government, defer[s] to the credibility determination of the jury, and overturn[s] a verdict only when the record contains no evidence, regardless of how it is weighed, from which the jury could find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt." United States v. Blassingame, 197 F.3d 271, 284 (7th Cir. 1999) (quoting United States v. Moore, 115 F.3d 1348, 1363 (7th Cir. 1997)); see also United States v. Benjamin, 116 F.3d 1204, 1206 (7th Cir. 1997).

Under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 33, a court may grant a new trial "if the interest of justice so requires." "The decision to grant or deny a motion for new trial rests within the sound discretion of the trial court." United States v. Reed, 875 F.2d 107, 113 (7th Cir. 1989). The court may grant a new trial "in a variety of situations in which trial errors or omissions have jeopardized the defendant's substantial rights." United States v. Reed, 986 F.2d 191, 192 (7th Cir. 1993) (citation omitted). Such motions are disfavored and are granted only in extreme cases. See, e.g., United States v. Linwood, 142 F.3d 418, 422 (7th Cir. 1998). To justify a new trial, an evidentiary ruling must be not only error but harmful error. United States v. Owens, 424 F.3d 649, 653 (7th Cir. 2005) ("[W]hen reviewing evidentiary errors, we will only reverse and order a new trial provided that the improper admission was not harmless, which is to say 'only if the error had a substantial influence over the jury, and the result reached was inconsistent with substantial justice.'" (quoting United States v. Hernandez, 330 F.3d 964, 969 (7th Cir. 2003))). In deciding whether a new trial should be granted under Rule 33, the court "may properly consider the credibility of witnesses, and may grant a new trial if the verdict is so contrary to the weight of the evidence that a new trial is required in the interest of justice." United States v. Washington, 184 F.3d 653, 657 (7th Cir. 1999).

ANALYSIS

I. Motion for Judgment of Acquittal

A. Evidence Presented at Trial

In 2007, Curescu purchased a vintage apartment building on Granville Avenue on the north side of Chicago to use as an investment property. Curescu planned to renovate the property, convert the apartments to condominiums, and then sell the condominiums. The building had only one apartment unit in the basement, and Curescu wanted to add two more garden apartments. Curescu was relatively inexperienced as a real estate developer but he did have substantial experience doing residential remodeling. He had also undertaken a similar project in 2006 when he renovated the basement of another apartment building on Maplewood Avenue and added four basement units to be sold as condos.

On June 20, 2007, Curescu called Catherine Romasanta, a professional expediter at City Hall, and asked if she could "make the papers" so that he could add a basement unit to the Granville property.*fn1 Curescu had hired Romasanta to help him obtain zoning approval for his renovation of the Maplewood property, with successful results. Unbeknownst to Curescu, however, in June 2007 Romasanta was cooperating with the federal government in an investigation into bribery at City Hall. Romasanta had informed the government that between 2003 and 2007 she passed approximately $187,000 in bribes to 25 or 30 City of Chicago employees in exchange for favorable treatment such as faster building inspections and inspectors' overlooking building code violations. Romasanta also passed bribes to city zoning inspectors in exchange for falsified reports that would allow her clients to circumvent the city's lengthy zoning amendment, or variance, procedures. Indeed, this is how Romasanta had obtained zoning approval for construction of four new basement units in the Maplewood building. As part of Romasanta's cooperation with the government, she agreed to allow all of her incoming and outgoing calls to be automatically recorded.

During the initial call on June 20, Romasanta asked Curescu whether he was "willing to pay whatever it takes" to get the necessary approval for the Granville basement units. Curescu responded, "Yeah, whatever the cost, definitely."

On June 28, 2007, Romasanta placed two calls to Curescu to discuss the Granville project. During their first conversation, Curescu told Romasanta that there were 13 "legal" dwelling units in the Granville property and that he wanted to "legalize" another unit. During the second call, Curescu and Romasanta had the following discussion regarding the "fee" for the zoning approval:

Romasanta: I'm not sure what the fee's going to be on this, but can you give me an idea of what maximum you want to pay for each unit?

Curescu: Well I think what we have done in the past will work with me. Romasanta: Okay, so I will let you know then. It's possible it might end up being $5,000 per unit.

Curescu: I believe I gave you $4,000 per unit last time.

Romasanta: Okay well we'll work on something with these guys. We'll see how it works out.

Curescu: That's fine, that's fine whatever you know, just not to exceed $5,000. . . . Not to exceed $5,000 per unit.

Romasanta testified that when Curescu stated that he wanted to do "what we have done in the past," he meant that "he paid me a bribe of $4,000 per illegal dwelling unit for the previous project for 5700 North Maplewood."

On July 6, 2007, Romasanta called Curescu to discuss the preparation of architectural plans for the Granville project. Curescu stated that he and his architect, Teofil Scorte, would meet that day to decide "exactly how the . . . drawings are going to be, how the apartments are going to be divided and so forth."

On July 10, 2007, Romasanta and Curescu met with Scorte to discuss the architectural plans. They met at Scorte's office and Romasanta recorded the meeting. Scorte showed architectural drawings to Romasanta that falsely stated that the Granville property had three pre-existing dwelling units in the basement. Romasanta and Curescu again discussed the payments that would be made in order to obtain zoning approval for the two additional basement units. Romasanta asked Curescu what his "max" would be, "so I know where to cut off when I'm dealing with these guys." Curescu responded, "Well, see what they say and then I'll let you know. I imagine that they won't go sky high ...


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