Harmon's gang money laundering bill passes Senate

? Harmon sponsored legislation intended to toughen state's financial reporting standards sails through 59-0.

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By BILL DWYER

A bill sponsored by State Senator Don Harmon that targets loopholes in the state's money laundering law passed the Illinois Senate by a 59-0 vote last week. The bill has passed the Illinois House with 117 of 118 votes.  Harmon (D-39) represents both Oak Park and the Austin neighborhood in Chicago, areas that have been directly affected for decades by pervasive drug marketing.

Calling the bill a "strong anti-gang measure," Harmon said Thursday that its intent is to target the financial resources of street gang drug operations.

"This is an attempt to strike at the life blood of the gangs, and that's their money," said Harmon. "We need to go after them where it hurts."

Equally important as any criminal prosecution of gang members for money laundering, prosecutors will also be able to move to seize those assets under tougher forfeiture laws.

That's all fine with the Cook County State's Attorney and the Illinois State Police, who support the legislation. Local cops also think the legislature is on the right track.

"Locking them up doesn't seem to be enough," said Oak Park Deputy Chief Bob Scianna.

"I think we're going in the right direction in going after the profit they gain from their illicit activities."

The legislation specifically targets the practice of "structuring," in which financial transactions?#34;frequently related to drug deals?#34;are set up in such a way as to avoid state and federal reporting requirements. Harmon noted that the bill simply gives local prosecutors the same tools to fight that practice that federal prosecutors already possess.

"If you deposit more than $10,000 (in cash) in a bank, the bank must report it to the federal and state governments," said Harmon. Some individuals, for various reasons, attempt to skirt that law on numerous occasions by depositing amounts that are just under that limit. Under Harmon's legislation, if prosecutors can prove such deposits are made with the intent of avoiding the required reporting, they can be prosecuted under Illinois  money laundering statutes.

Another manner of concealing illicit assets, safety deposit boxes, is not currently defined under state law as a financial transaction. Criminal defense attorneys, Harmon said, routinely cite a 1991 case in which a safe deposit box was ruled to not be a financial transaction for purposes of a money laundering prosecution.

That, however, is not the experience of many prosecutors, said Harmon.

"State's attorneys are finding that gangs are using safe deposit boxes to store money as part of a greater money laundering scheme," he said.

Scianna sees the combination of tough prosecution, stiff sentences and asset seizures as the most effective strategy in suppressing gang drug operations.

"(The feds) go after everything they own," said Scianna, whose department has had a representative working with the federal government on gangs and drugs for 10 years. The federal model, with its stricter sentences and seizure laws, is one he'd like to see adopted at the state and local levels.

"Take away the money," Scianna said. "Anything you can prove was purchased with illicitly gained funds."

A high profile can sometimes have its drawbacks. Just ask Illinois State Senator Don Harmon, who, among other duties, serves as chairman of the Senate Revenue Committee and sits on the Property Tax Reform committee. A legal notice in the May 11 WEDNESDAY JOURNAL indicates that Harmon's home on North Elmwood Avenue is one of a total of 201 Oak Park properties listed as being tax delinquent.  According to Cook County Collector Maria Pappas, Harmon owes the county $4,683.13 in second installment 2003 real estate taxes.

Contacted Thursday in Springfield, a chagrined Harmon explained that neither forgetfulness nor a tight budget had anything to do with it, at least on his part.

"My bank paid the wrong PIN number," he said. "I thought they'd corrected that."

The Cook County Collector will apply in Cook County Circuit Court for judgment on all properties listed in the legal notice by June 1. Those properties will then face a tax sale on July 11, though Harmon doesn't intend to allow it to come to that. He'll definitely be speaking with his bank soon, he said, and probably with a few choice words.

Oak Park Township assessor Ali El Saffar agreed Friday that Harmon's being on the list is quite likely not his fault.  Checking his records, El Saffar confirmed that Harmon's first 2003 real estate tax installment payment was in fact made.  But there was, he said, some sort of anomaly in the second installment that he wasn't sure what to make of. As best as El Saffar could determine, some sort of payment had been made, then changed.

Supporting Harmon's contention, he noted that instances of banks and mortgage companies making mistaken real estate tax payments are "not uncommon."

In fact, Harmon said, the Cook County Treasurer reports that some 2,500 such mistakes occur in the county each year. It's a matter of numbers and probability.

"Mortgage companies pay hundreds of thousands of tax bills," said El Saffar. "With each property having a 14 number PIN (property identification number). All you have to do is transpose one number one percent of the time, and you have a thousand unpaid bills."

"If they're one number off, I may be paying your taxes." That, said Harmon, is basically what happened in his case.

"I feel terrible for everyone on that list," Harmon said. "We're all having to jump through these hoops to straighten things out with our mortgage companies."

Though he doesn't consider himself different from any other homeowner inconvenienced by a clerical error, Harmon is in fact different enough to have his situation noted in the local media. Harmon seemed to allude to that fact jokingly Monday afternoon.

"Fortunately for the mortgage companies," Harmon said with his tongue firmly in cheek, "very few of those taxpayers have subpoena power and chair the Revenue Committee that oversees property tax policy."
?#34;Bill Dwyer

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