Cicero is back in the news, and not the famous Roman orator or the avenue in Chicago.
This is another story about the west suburban town that’s been famous for being infamous since mobster Al Capone lived there in the 1920s.
The Better Government Association recently reported that a suburban waste processing company has contributed big bucks to political funds controlled by Cicero’s Town President, Larry Dominick.
The firm, Heartland Recycling LLC, is a longtime Cicero contractor that’s been paid more than $15 million since Dominick was elected in 2005.
Garbage company is paid millions by Cicero taxpayers in no-bid deal, and donates big to Town President Larry Dominick’s campaign funds.
And the whole thing has a bad smell to it.
There’s no indication any laws have been broken, and a town spokesman says it’s not “pay to play.”
In fact, a lot of municipal contractors donate to the politicians who hire their companies, and while watchdogs like the BGA may question the ethics of the practice, it’s not illegal.
Neither is the fact that, in recent years, Heartland’s gotten the business without going through a competitive bidding process, and there’s not even a written contract.
Those are additional good government no-nos, but so typically Cicero — the big town with the bigger history of shady deals, waste and corruption.
One of Dominick’s recent predecessors, former Town President Betty Loren-Maltese, widow of mid-level mafioso Frank Maltese, went to federal prison for her role in a mobbed-up multimillion-dollar insurance scam.
And allegations of corruption have continued under subsequent leaders, including Dominick, an ex-cop who initially ran as a reformer.
He’s added numerous relatives to the payroll, paid out hundreds of thousands of tax dollars to settle sexual harassment lawsuits, and given a pal who runs a sewer company more than $1.8 million in municipal business.
That firm, like Heartland, didn’t have a contract.
So even if it’s not against the law, why does it keep happening?
Where’s the transparency? The oversight? The accountability?
Obviously not on the town board Dominick controls, and apparently not on the minds of the voters who keep electing them.
Here’s how the deal with Heartland works: Ten Cicero trucks pick up trash and recycling from approximately 23,000 residential housing units a week, and haul the waste to a Heartland transfer station along the Stevenson Expressway in Forest View to be weighed and sorted.
Cicero then pays Heartland to dispose of the trash.
A town spokesman says Dominick didn’t hire the firm — Heartland has worked for Cicero since at least 2001, according to municipal records — but Dominick continues to do business with them, and they’re extraordinarily generous to him.
Since 2005, Heartland and its now-former executive Thomas A. Volini donated nearly $130,000 to campaign funds controlled by or benefitting Dominick.
Even if the donations have nothing to do with the waste hauling business, and Heartland contributes because it likes Dominick’s leadership, Cicero’s governance is still dubious.
Without competitive bidding, how can taxpayers know if the costs could be lower, or the process fairer?
They can’t, so this looks like another politically connected vendor raking in millions, even without a contract.
The town spokesman says Cicero likes the flexibility that comes with a handshake deal, but it also exposes the town to unnecessary risks.
A contract not only safeguards a municipality and a vendor by defining the costs and responsibilities of both upfront, it makes it easier for taxpayers to scrutinize the terms.
But for the last decade the town’s board hasn’t even approved the “arrangement” in public meetings — they’ve been backroom deals inaccessible to taxpayers, which is another good government no-no.
That’s a lot of ethical transgressions — enough, in fact, to merit a failing grade in Ethics 101, but not enough, apparently, to earn a demerit from Cicero taxpayers.
Maybe they’re just thankful the Capone crowd’s not walking around the town with Tommy guns anymore.
Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 312-386-9097.