Salinas pleads guilty to federal bribery charge, resigns from council seat

2013-05-13T15:20:00Z 2013-08-01T19:12:19Z Salinas pleads guilty to federal bribery charge, resigns from council seatBy Marc Chase marc.chase@nwi.com, (219) 662-5330 nwitimes.com

Disgraced Hammond City Councilman Al Salinas resigned from office Monday, just a few hours after pleading guilty to taking more than $10,000 in kickbacks for steering city work to a contractor.

Salinas pleaded guilty during a hearing in U.S. District Court, Hammond.

After the hearing, federal prosecutors said Salinas -- a Democrat who had represented Hammond's 2nd District since 1995 -- was no longer eligible to hold public office because of the plea to the felony bribery charge.

Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr., who also serves as Lake County's Democratic Party chairman, responded Monday night regarding the future of Salinas' seat.

Now that the seat is vacant, a caucus of Democratic precinct committee members from the 2nd District will meet in June to select a new council member, McDermott said.

McDermott said no potential candidates have stepped forward for the seat.

"It could be a lot of people," McDermott said Monday. "There's people showing up today at the (City) Council meeting that you normally don't see."

In addition to the bribery charge, Salinas also pleaded guilty to one count of willful failure to file a tax return for the 2006 tax year. That charge is a federal misdemeanor.

In a written statement issued Monday via a city of Hammond fax machine, Salinas announced his resignation, noting "none of us are immune from our share of shortcomings and human frailties."

"Still I offer no excuse for my conduct, and I fully accept my responsibility for the improper decisions and mistakes I have made," Salinas said in the signed statement.

During the plea hearing Monday, Salinas admitted to U.S. District Judge Philip Simon he knowingly accepted the bribes offered to him in exchange for steering contracts to a region tree service.

But he quibbled with the judge regarding whether he "willingly" failed to file tax returns.

Salinas told Simon he "just didn't file them," taking issue with whether he intentionally did so as is spelled out in his plea agreement.

During questioning by the judge, Salinas admitted he knew he was required by law to file federal income tax returns and failed to do so. Simon concluded it met the definition of willingly.

Under a plea deal with federal prosecutors, Salinas, 52, admitted to one count of steering city tree-trimming work to Dave’s Tree Service in exchange for more than $10,000 in cash payments from the business’s owner, David Johnson, of Munster. Johnson pleaded guilty in October to a federal charge of paying the bribes to Salinas to receive city work that was funded through discretionary casino gaming money.

Salinas, 52, authorized at least $310,000 in contracts to Dave's Tree Service from 2009 to 2011, court records state. Dave’s Tree Service made 11 payments to Salinas during that period, in amounts ranging from $500 to $1,500, to obtain the work, according to the court files.

The bribery charge carries a prison sentence of up to 10 years and a $250,000 fine, according to the plea agreement. The tax charge carries up to one year in prison and a $100,000 fine.

In addition, Salinas must pay $20,574 in restitution to the IRS and forfeit $10,500 to the federal government under the plea.

Hammond City Council President Michael Opinker said he wishes Salinas the best but acknowledged the former councilman's situation.

"Obviously he made a bad decision, and for that decision, he's going to pay for it," Opinker said.

Opinker, D-5th, said he has not heard of anyone interested in running for the seat.

City Councilman Homero "Chico" Hinojosa, D-6th, said he also hasn't heard of any potential candidates.

"I've known Al and his father for a long time. ...I'm just sorry to hear what happened. When it comes to government, you got to do the right thing," Hinojosa said.

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