Phony Chicago Informant Gets 30 Months

It wasn’t the boss for a change.

In 1993, two FBI agents confronted Int’l Bhd. of Electrical Workers boss Jerry O’Connor with seemingly incontrovertible evidence of his guilt: a secretly recorded tape of O’Connor, a high-ranking union official in Chicago, accepting a $10,000 bribe in cash from a longtime government informant. Yet O’Connor insisted it wasn’t his voice on the tape and that he was innocent of the accusation. But as it turned out, O’Connor was a victim of a greedy informant named William Russell, authorities said, who conned the FBI out of tens of thousands of dollars for worthless undercover work and nearly framed an innocent man.

On Oct. 14, five months after a federal jury convicted him for lying to a grand jury and obstructing justice, Russell was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison. U.S. Dist. Judge Harry Leinenweber also ordered Russell to pay O’Connor’s legal expenses battling the phony allegations and to make full restitution to the government for the nearly $300,000 in pay to Russell and to cover expenses for the ill-fated investigation. Prosecutors said the tape-recorded bribe was a scam by Russell with the help, authorities believe, of an unknown cohort who posed as O’Connor on the tape.

O’Connor is convinced he would have been charged, convicted and imprisoned if not for the fact that he wasn’t at the union hall on Chicago’s West Side on the day in Sep. 1991 when Russell led the FBI to think he passed O’Connor the $10,000 bribe there. Fortunately for O’Connor, when the FBI confronted him, he still had expense vouchers and other documentation that proved he was more than 300 miles away in Eau Claire, Wis., when the purported bribe occurred.

In 1991, thinking the tape proved Russell’s claims of rife union corruption, federal authorities launched a major investigation, setting up at great expense and effort an elaborate undercover storefront business in DuPage County. What federal investigators hoped to prove was that union officials were demanding kickbacks in return for helping the business land contracts. The undercover probe found no wrongdoing as Russell pocketed $10,000 a month in pay as an informant. But authorities thought that at least they still had an incriminating tape of O’Connor pocketing the $10,000 bribe. In the end, the only person charged as a result of Russell’s undercover work was Russell himself. Ronald Safer, a ex-federal prosecutor, said Russell figured wrongly that if his fraud was ever uncovered, he would escape punishment because federal authorities “would sweep this under the rug because this was too embarrassing.” [Chi. Trib. 10/15/99]