Feds Probes Phony Cop Badges, Credentials
By Ray Gibson and Matt O'Connor, The Chicago Tribune
Federal authorities are investigating how dozens of phony police credentials ended up in the hands of unqualified individuals in Chicago and the suburbs, court records show.
In some cases, the badges were presented to gun shops in attempts to illegally buy handguns, and others were used by individuals hired by Ford Heights with the aid of a federal grant to patrol public housing complexes there. The badges also were given to individuals who worked security at the Chicago Housing Authority's Robert Taylor Homes.
Federal agents executed a search warrant on a Chicago Heights firm last December to seize records relating to Comrail International Railroad and its operation of a railroad police department.
Under federal law, railroads are permitted to hire individuals to staff police departments, but Comrail had been notified in March 2002 by federal authorities that it wasn't recognized as a legitimate railroad as defined by federal law. Comrail should not be confused with Conrail (Consolidated Rail Corp.), which has been in operation since 1976.
Attorneys for Comrail and company officers acknowledged the investigation, but one of the attorneys said neither Comrail nor company officials were its targets.
"They were questioned, but to the best of my knowledge it has nothing to do with them," said attorney Michael O'Malley. He said the investigation was looking for how individuals got Comrail police credentials. "They are looking for that missing piece," he said.
On numerous occasions during a one-year period, federal agents dug through the garbage of Comrail, retrieving employment applications, pages of a manual on searching individuals, and a document describing various positions such as chief or investigator, according to court records.
Federal investigators have traced the purchase of at least 49 gold badges inscribed with the phrase "Comrail Railroad Police" and a coat of arms to an address in Carol Stream, but sources said that more than 100 badges could have been issued.
The U.S. attorney's office also has subpoenaed the records of the state agency that certifies all sworn police officers in Illinois and obtained a "very lengthy" list of personnel submitted by Comrail, according to Kevin McClain, the legal counsel for the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board. The board has never recognized Comrail as a legitimate police agency
Last year, the poverty-ridden village of Ford Heights received a federal grant of about $134,000 from the Cook County Housing Authority to hire auxiliary police to assist Ford Heights officers in patrolling more than 300 units of public housing in the village.
According to court records, "special agents were advised by personnel with the Ford Heights Police Department that members of Comrail were using and displaying Comrail badges and credentials while accompanying Ford Heights police officers on official business."
Weeks later, village officials pulled the auxiliary officers off the street in what was described as a dispute between a Village Board member and acting police chief Percy Coleman.
At a raucous Village Board meeting following the removal of the auxiliary police, residents demanded that they be brought back. Village officials said at the time that the auxiliary police would be brought back after their credentials were checked.
Village attorney Dirk Van Beek said he wasn't familiar with Comrail. He said he wasn't aware of any subpoena of village records over the hiring of the auxiliary police who used Comrail credentials.
Coleman was fired from the acting chief's job in June. At the same time he held the acting chief's job, he was also a parole supervisor for the Illinois Department of Corrections, where he is paid $75,000 a year, a job he continues to hold.
Coleman, who was the 34th Ward Republican committeeman, never sought permission from the Department of Corrections for the second job. When he filed a statement of economic interests in connection with his acting chief's position, he failed to disclose his state job as required by state law.
"I wouldn't be willing to comment on anything," Coleman said Friday.