Businessman gets probation for paying bribes to former state Sen. Martin Sandoval and McCook mayor

Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune/TNS
·4 min read

A federal judge sentenced a suburban businessman to probation Tuesday for paying bribes to then-state Sen. Martin Sandoval and former McCook Mayor Jeffrey Tobolski, saying although she loathes public corruption it was the politicians that should shoulder most of the blame.

In sparing Vahooman Mirkhaef from prison, U.S. District Judge Mary Rowland had harsh words for Sandoval, who showed up personally at Mirkhaef’s office in 2018 demanding payment for his help securing the purchase of state-owned property in McCook.

“The gall of the state senator in this case really surprises me,” Rowland said before sentencing Mirkhaef to two years of probation and 200 hours of community service. “It saddens me. It kind of makes me sick, actually.”

Sandoval pleaded guilty in 2020 in a separate scheme to take bribes from a red-light camera company executive. He was cooperating with prosecutors when he died in December 2020 of COVID-19-related complications.

Rowland also blasted Tobolski, who, according to court records, allegedly took cash and other benefits from Mirkhaef over a three-year period in exchange for Tobolski not interfering with the operation of his trucking business, Cub Terminal.

As part of that scheme, Mirkhaef attended the annual Christmas party at Tobolski’s home, where the mayor had a “gratuity” basket out for businesspeople to put cash donations, according to court records.

Assistant U.S. Attorney James Durkin said there was “an understanding that pretty much everyone who did business in that town” had to pay gratuities to Tobolski in one form or another if they wanted to operate successfully.

Rowland called that “a sickness in the local government.”

“I loathe public corruption,” the judge said. “There is just no excuse for it. … But I don’t want to take my anger with the public officials out on this defendant. That’s not appropriate.”

Mirkhaef, 61, who goes by the nickname “Shadow,” pleaded guilty last year to bribery conspiracy. His attorney, Sergio Acosta, asked for probation, calling him a “good man who made a serious mistake.”

Prosecutors, though, had asked for 14 months in prison, saying in a recent court filing that public corruption “tarnishes by association the honest public servants who do not act out of self-interest, and it disadvantages honest citizens who refuse to engage in bribery and influence peddling.”

Before the sentence was handed down, Mirkhaef sobbed in court as he apologized for his actions, saying he’s lost the career and respect he spent decades building.

“It was never really my intention to break the law,” Mirkhaef said, pausing to regain his composure. “That is not who I am. I knew better.”

Mirkhaef was the latest to be sentenced in a wide-ranging corruption probe that went public when federal agents raided Sandoval’s Springfield offices in September 2019.

According to his plea agreement, Mirkhaef enlisted Sandoval’s help in 2018 to secure property owned by the Illinois Department of Transportation that was adjacent to his trucking logistics company, Cub Terminal, at 5300 Joliet Road in McCook.

At the time, Sandoval was the powerful head of the Senate Transportation Committee and held considerable sway over IDOT.

Mirkhaef’s plea agreement stated he was urged to contact Sandoval by Public Official A and another uncharged co-conspirator, identified in the document as Individual A.

In June 2018, Sandoval met with officials at IDOT and “sought to influence and advise them” regarding the sale of McCook property to Mirkhaef, according to the charges. After Sandoval intervened, IDOT put the land up for sale at public auction, where it was purchased by Mirkhaef that August.

The charges stated Mirkhaef, through Individual A, agreed on two separate occasions to pay Sandoval $25,000 cash for his efforts. That December, Sandoval went to Mirkhaef’s office to confirm that the money was still coming, the charges alleged.

On Jan. 21, 2019, Mirkhaef and Sandoval met at a restaurant in McCook, where Mirkhaef “arranged to pay in excess of $15,000 in cash” to the senator, according to the plea agreement. The plea does not state whether the rest of the promised money was ever paid.

State election records show Cub Terminal donated $23,500 directly to Sandoval’s campaign coffers between 2014 and 2019, including a $5,000 contribution just two months before the FBI raid on Sandoval’s office.

He also donated $4,000 to the failed campaign of Sandoval’s daughter, Angie, for a seat on the Cook County Board in 2017, records show.

Tobolski, who was also a Cook County commissioner, has pleaded guilty to accepting at least a quarter of a million dollars in bribes through a variety of schemes, including the extortion of a restaurant owner looking to serve liquor at an event at a village-owned facility. Tobolski is cooperating while awaiting sentencing.