Facing life in prison for his part in a massive drug-dealing operation led by crooked Chicago cop Joseph Miedzianowski, gang member Mohammed Omar spilled his guts to a federal prosecutor in hopes of reducing his own sentence.
Among the information Omar passed along in June 2001: Another Chicago cop, Detective Reynaldo Guevara, was taking bribes in murder cases – money to either let off suspects, or frame them – and shaking down gangbangers for cash, according to a court document recently obtained by the Better Government Association.
But there’s no evidence the U.S. attorney’s office – which prosecuted Miedzianowski and Omar and, at the time, was led by Scott Lassar – did anything with that tip, given to one of Lassar’s assistant U.S. attorneys.
Today, more than a decade later, there’s mounting evidence that Guevara indeed framed innocent people in murder cases – with the City of Chicago settling two wrongful-conviction lawsuits and investigating numerous other claims about Guevara, who retired from the police department in 2005.
Now, Lassar is on the case – not as a prosecutor but as a private attorney whose law firm Sidley Austin LLP was hired by the Emanuel administration in 2013 to probe allegations against Guevara and recommend a course of action.
Sidley’s investigation, overseen by Lassar, recently concluded with a recommendation that Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez review the murder convictions of five prisoners who may have been wrongfully convicted. In all five, Guevara led the investigation.
To date city taxpayers have paid Sidley more than $1.9 million for this matter, records show.
Lassar, who was the top federal prosecutor in the Chicago region from 1997 until Aug. 31, 2001, declined to comment but others say his work on this case represents a potential conflict of interest.
“Scott Lassar has a reputation for being someone who’s legitimate,” says Russell Ainsworth, a Chicago attorney who represents two alleged Guevara victims. “But it seems very odd that the city chose the person who didn’t prosecute Guevara to lead its independent investigation.”
Briefed on the matter by the BGA, civil rights attorney Craig Futterman says ideally someone with no connections to a case should lead an independent investigation.
“When you have an appearance of potential conflict, when there’s potential skin in the game, you really shouldn’t be the one,” he says.
City Hall spokeswoman Shannon Breymaier declined to comment on Lassar.
Most of Guevara’s misconduct allegations involve pre-2001 incidents. If authorities failed to act, potentially innocent people may have spent more time in prison, damaging lives and increasing the city’s liability.
Refuse to act?
Omar told a federal prosecutor (as well as a Chicago police sergeant in the room at the time of the interview) that “Guevara’s ‘policy’ was to catch a person with drugs or guns, but let them buy their way out of trouble,” according to the court document obtained by the BGA. “Guevara was also said to have accepted bribes to change positive or negative identifications during lineups for murder cases.”
Omar wasn’t the first person to accuse Guevara of wrongdoing.
By 2001 claims of misconduct were mounting but Guevara remained an Area 5 detective, underpinning the notion that historically the city has failed to recognize repeated allegations of wrongdoing.
“The flags come up . . . [but] they refuse to act,” says G. Flint Taylor, a founding partner of Chicago-based civil rights firm People’s Law Office, who has represented numerous victims of alleged police misconduct.
Guevara joined the police department in 1976, city records show.
Six years later what appears to be the first misconduct complaint naming Guevara was filed by a woman who alleged that he and two officers abused and harassed her and a male companion, according to a copy of the complaint, obtained by the BGA.
The claim was not sustained but there were more allegations to come.
The Emanuel administration is prevented from releasing Guevara’s disciplinary record because of a court order in an ongoing lawsuit, filed by the union that represents Chicago’s rank-and-file police officers, Breymaier says.
But through court files and interviews, the BGA found a total of at least 15 misconduct complaints were filed against Guevara from 1982 to 2005. Among the allegations: Guevara beat and harassed suspects, forcibly coerced confessions and searched a home without a warrant.
At least two complaints were sustained, including one where Guevara was accused of beating a suspect and another where he allegedly slapped and choked a man during a traffic stop. The city’s Office of Professional Standards recommended suspensions in both cases, court filings show, but it’s unknown if Guevara was punished.
Guevara declined to speak with a reporter. In court depositions, he has refused to answer questions about alleged misconduct, citing his constitutional right against self-incrimination.
In all, Chicago taxpayers have spent nearly $20 million to defend, settle and investigate misconduct allegations involving the detective, records show. Most of that cash went to Juan Johnson, who spent 11 years in prison after his conviction in a 1989 gang-related murder. When he was retried and ultimately acquitted, witnesses claimed Guevara had forced them to implicate Johnson.
The city paid $15 million to settle Johnson’s 2005 lawsuit.
The payout was the largest but not the first involving Guevara.
The city forked over $45,000 to settle a 1999 lawsuit that alleged similar misconduct, records show. Two murder suspects, who were acquitted at trial, claimed Guevara forced a witness to say they killed Oscar Pagan Arman. In a strange twist, Guevara acknowledged in court filings that Arman was his wife’s nephew.
“We are prevented from commenting on the officer’s discipline history since he has not been with the department since 2005 and we cannot disclose [complaints] that are more than four years old,” Chicago police spokesman Marty Maloney says in an email. “[But] over the last four years, we have made it a priority to . . . prevent the type of police misconduct that has occurred in the past, and respond to any police misconduct swiftly, consistently and with transparency.”
This column – a regular feature called The Public Eye, appearing in the Chicago Sun-Times – was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Andrew Schroedter, who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (312) 821-9035. Schroedter’s Twitter handle is @SchroedterBGA.
Image credits: Chicago Sun-Times