A suburban tavern owner was promised he would receive only “a slap on the wrist” for citations against his business because the agency he bought his insurance through was owned by a friend of the longtime mayor of suburban Niles, an FBI agent testified Wednesday.
Niles is a “collar” suburb of Chicago.
The mayor, Nicholas B. Blase, was arrested earlier this month and charged with mail fraud, accused of taking payoffs to steer customers to a friend’s insurance agency.
Blase, 78, did not appear at Wednesday’s preliminary hearing, at which U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael T. Mason ruled there was probable cause to continue the case against him.
Instead, Blase was back in his suburb, “fulfilling his obligations to the citizens of Niles as he has for the last 45 years,” his defense attorney Harvey M. Silets said outside court.
FBI Agent Ralph Renno recounted in court what he said he and other federal officials have been told by several employees of the insurance agency and a worker in Blase’s law firm whose salary authorities allege was covered by kickbacks from the insurance company.
None were named in the affidavit or during his testimony.
The insurance agency central to the case is Ralph Weiner & Associates, based in suburban Wheeling. It was headed for years by Blase friend Ralph Weiner, and when he died last year, his son Steven Weiner took the business over, authorities said.
Steven Weiner, 53, of Northbrook, also faces a mail fraud charge. He and Blase are free on their own recognizance.
One witness cooperating with the investigation was employed as an insurance broker for Weiner & Associates, Renno said. The witness said he received a phone call from a client _ a Niles tavern owner worried about some citations he’d received regarding fights at his business and asking the insurance broker to contact Blase.
The insurance broker did so, and told authorities that Blase told him to tell the tavern owner to appear at the hearing and he would receive “a slap on the wrist,” Renno testified. Later, the insurance broker said he heard from the tavern owner, who wanted to thank the mayor for his help, Renno said.
The same insurance broker told authorities of a Niles business owner who decided to change insurance companies until she got a phone call from Blase saying he had heard she wanted to switch carriers, Renno said. The mayor then mentioned some temporary warehouses on her business property were problematic, and the woman told the insurance broker she thought the mayor was trying to influence her decision, Renno said.
The mayor’s defense attorney tried to poke holes in Renno’s testimony by asking about his definition of words such as “access” and “favors” and why only some interviews with cooperating witnesses had been recorded.
He suggested that Blase, as an elected official, only was trying to address the concerns of business owners and constituents in his suburb, and that the cooperating witnesses felt coerced by federal investigators.
He also questioned why Blase would have deposited $34,000 of his own money in the account of a company federal authorities have labeled a shell organization set up for Weiner & Associates to directly deposit kickbacks for him to use for the attorney’s salary.
Despite his arguments, Mason ruled there was probable cause to continue the case against Blase. The federal magistrate also said he was “surprised” by Blase’s decision not to attend the hearing, comparing it to a prisoner who refuses to come to court.
But he allowed the hearing to continue because federal prosecutors did not object to Blase’s absence
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