Ex-Hammond pol gets 42-month sentence in scheme
By Teresa Auch Schultz firstname.lastname@example.org August 13, 2013 5:54PM
Al Salinas, Hammond City Councilman in 2008. | File Photo~Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 15, 2013 6:23AM
HAMMOND — Dismissing former Hammond City Councilman Al Salinas’ claim that he made “one mistake,” a federal judge on Tuesday sentenced him to 42 months in prison for taking a bribe and not filing a federal tax return almost continually for about a decade.
“There really wasn’t one mistake,” U.S. District Judge Philip Simon said during Salinas’ sentencing hearing. “This was a drum beat of behavior.”
Salinas pleaded guilty earlier this year to not filing tax returns since 2006 and to taking $10,600 in bribes from local businessman Dave Johnson in exchange for giving Johnson’s tree cutting business about $310,000 in city business.
The sentencing hearing at the U.S. District Court in Hammond started with testimony from an IRS criminal investigative unit agent, Steven Martinez, about how Salinas never filed a tax return from 2002 to 2011, except for one he filed a year late in 2004 and one he filed on time for 2005. He also said Salinas never paid any of the taxes owed during that time, which total more than $45,000.
Martinez also testified about evidence showing Salinas stole more than $20,000 from his campaign account for personal use. This included depositing three checks from local businesses marked for “campaign” directly into his personal account, Martinez said. Salinas was not charged with any alleged election law violations, although evidence about it can be considered during sentencing.
Salinas apologized and took responsibility for his actions. He said he was a bad bookkeeper and blamed a busy schedule for not filing his taxes.
“A lot was going on,” he said. “I had a lot on my plate.”
As for the bribe, Salinas said he didn’t spend the money on vacations and used it for good. His attorney, Mark Psimos, had argued that he spent some of the money on block parties for people in his district.
Salinas also claimed that he tried to fix his tax situation by seeking help through a law firm in California but that he became a victim of the firm, which is being sued by the state of California for corrupt practices.
However, Assistant U.S. Attorney Gary Bell disputed these claims, noting that all but two of the checks Johnson gave Salinas were cleared in winter and that records with the tax law firm show that Salinas was told he was supposed to prepare the tax returns himself. The firm never received those returns, Bell argued.
“The defendant is a corrupt politician and he’s a tax cheat,” Bell said.
He also noted the length of Salinas’ crimes. The bribery lasted for about 18 months from 2009 to 2011. Federal sentencing guidelines also essentially did not take the tax charge into account, Bell said, because the bribery charge took precedent. Bell asked for 47 months, the top of the recommended sentencing range.
Simon said he considered Salinas’ crime “very, very serious” and disputed Salinas’ claim that the bribe was “only” $10,600.
“To me, that’s a giant bribe,” Simon said, adding that it’s an amount that makes the public concerned about what else an elected official will do for money.
He also questioned the IRS’ role in letting Salinas go so long without filing or paying his taxes.
“This doesn’t make the IRS look terrific, by the way,” the judge said.
However, Simon said he decided to go with just 42 months because of the many letters that people sent on Salinas’ behalf, speaking of how he helped them during his 20-year career with the City Council. A restitution was not ordered because the IRS oversees collection of money owed it.
Salinas must report to prison on Oct. 1.