Before joining the City Council, Roderick Sawyer did legal work for a business that bought distressed properties from people, some of them behind on their property taxes — paying at times tens of thousands of dollars less than they were worth — an Illinois Answers Project investigation has found.
One sale — for a home in Beverly for $32,000 — was later invalidated by a judge after the homeowner was diagnosed with dementia.
The real estate investment firm Real Cheap Property, tried to buy the Beverly home of Kenneth Johnson, who was delinquent in his property taxes, and purchased three other Chicago properties, for amounts well under their market values in 2004 and 2005, with sales prices ranging from $1,500 to $32,000. Sawyer, the son of a Chicago mayor who is now running for the job himself in a campaign that has not gained traction, has his name on documents on four deals.
Kenneth Johnson’s brother, Robert Johnson, went to court to invalidate the sale of the Beverly home and eventually won after a trial in which Sawyer was called to testify. In his court action, Robert Johnson alleged that Sawyer and the owner of Real Cheap Property, Estella Long, “took advantage of Kenneth Johnson’s vulnerable position, inexperience . . . and used their superior knowledge to financially exploit him for their own personal gain . . . ”
While a Cook County judge ruled in favor of Robert Johnson and invalidated the sale of the home, the judge did not find Sawyer did anything wrong. The Johnson home later sold for $255,000 in 2008.
In a statement, Sawyer stressed that the court dismissed him “from the action because it found no wrongdoing of any kind. In the Johnson case, I was paid $200 to write legal documents and had no part in the negotiation of the sale.”
In at least two of the three other sales involving Real Cheap Property, the property owner was delinquent on taxes. Real Cheap bought a 4,500-square-foot vacant lot in Washington Park in March 2005 from a 76-year-old man, who was behind on his property taxes, for $1,500. Real Cheap resold the property in June for $30,000.
In Auburn Gresham, Real Cheap bought a one-story commercial property for $14,000 in July 2004. The company later resold the property for more than three times what they paid the previous owner, who faced thousands of dollars in property tax debt. For the third property, there is no record if the owner was behind on taxes.
In the case of the Beverly home, Kenneth Johnson, who was later diagnosed with dementia and declared legally disabled, was driven from his home of 36 years to Sawyer’s office on March 28, 2005, by Long to sign deed transfer documents, according to court records. Kenneth Johnson did not have an attorney with him, according to court records.
“My brother, being gullible, had no idea what was going on,” said Robert Johnson, who was his brother’s legal guardian. His brother has since died.
Before selling his home to Real Cheap Property, Kenneth Johnson owed $16,000 in property taxes. The court filing contends Long and Sawyer told Johnson something false — that he could lose the house and get nothing if he didn’t sell it that day.
In a statement, Sawyer told Illinois Answers this allegation was false. “Quite the opposite is true,” he said. “The only way I knew the urgency of his sale is because he showed me a document which listed his last day of redemption,” referring to a deadline when Kenneth Johnson needed to pay his owed taxes.
Real Cheap’s sale agreement with Johnson would cover the tax debt he owed the county – a common practice for the business.
In an interview with Illinois Answers reporters, Sawyer said he did not specifically remember the details of the court case involving Johnson and his home, but said that he did draw up contracts for Real Cheap Property at the request of Long.
“I prepared standard documents for her and she would do the rest,” Sawyer said in an interview. “It was 20 years ago – I don’t recall.”
In a statement provided after that call, Sawyer said his work with the real estate company was “very simple, boilerplate document work.”
In Sawyer’s statement, he recalled that Kenneth Johnson “at the time . . . seemed quite happy to be making the sale.” Johnson said that if the real estate company hadn’t intervened, he “was going to lose the property,” according to Sawyer’s statement.
Sawyer said he parted ways with Real Cheap Property over a matter unrelated to the Johnson home sale.
The alderman said he did not remember being involved in the other transactions with Real Cheap.
Reporters could not reach Long for comment. Robert Habib, the attorney who represented Long in the 2005 court case, couldn’t recall many of the details but said “[Long] lost the money she gave [Kenneth Johnson] and he kept the house and walked away laughing about the whole thing.”
Robert Johnson said he couldn’t say for sure what his brother said to Sawyer at the closing.
In response to Habib’s statement, Robert Johnson said “we walked away with the house after $50,000 in legal fees. I don’t remember laughing at all. It was a somber moment when the judge voided the sale.”
The court declared the sale to Real Cheap and a subsequent sale of the home by the company for $195,000 null and void, allowing Kenneth Johnson to remain there.
During the legal process, a doctor evaluated Kenneth Johnson and found he had dementia and a developmental disability “rendering him unable to fully manage his person and estate,” records show.
Robert Johnson filed a complaint against Sawyer with the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission, the oversight arm of the state’s lawyers, but the registration commission’s site does not indicate any finding of wrongdoing or discipline.
Johnson, 83, still gets angry when he thinks of the sale that almost cost his brother the family’s home. He asked how anyone could allow for the sale of a home for such a low amount.
Sawyer, who is the former chairman of the council’s Black Caucus, has represented the 6th Ward on the South Side since 2011 and announced his mayoral bid in June.
In a statement from Sawyer’s campaign a spokesman noted the alderman stopped doing outside legal work when he became alderman “because he didn’t want even the perception of impropriety.”
Reporting on equity issues by the BGA is supported by Joel M. Friedman, president of the Alvin H. Baum Family Fund.