The onetime elected head of the Bloomingdale Township highway commission was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in federal prison Tuesday for taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in kickbacks from the owner of an excavation company in exchange for approving contracts for roadwork that in many cases was never performed.
Robert Czernek, 71, pleaded guilty last year to one count of honest-services wire fraud and later gave crucial testimony leading to the conviction of the contractor, Mario Giannini.
Czernek’s attorney, Jacqueline S. Jacobson, had asked for a term of home-incarceration, citing his extensive cooperation as well as health issues that have included heart disease and long COVID.
But in sentencing Czernek to 42 months behind bars, U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly noted his crimes spanned a more than eight-year period and increased even after he had triple-bypass heart surgery in 2018.
“When you’re old and sick and choose to commit planned crimes over an extensive period, it rings a bit hollow to come in here and say, ‘Don’t give me a significant sentence because I’m old and sick,’” Kennelly said. “You should’ve thought about that then.”
Kennelly also said Czernek’s abuse of his elected office to line his own pockets was an example of why many people distrust the government and amounted to ”pure, unadulterated greed.”
“There are a lot of reasons people don’t trust the government … Some are unjust and some are loony,” Kennelly said. “The reasons here are neither unjust nor loony.”
Before the sentence was handed down, Czernek read a statement apologizing for his actions, admitting he sold his office “to benefit myself,” and that he was working with a counselor to try to better understand his behavior.
“I violated the public trust and there is no excuse for that,” Czernek said, his voice choking up. “I hope my cooperation and guilty plea will help restore the trust in government that I helped take away.”
Czernek was charged in August 2020 with taking kickbacks from Giannini and his company, Bloomingdale-based Bulldog Earth Movers Inc., over a period of more than eight years.
In exchange, Czernek used his official position to approve more than $700,000 in payments for stone delivery, dump-leveling and storm-sewer invoices submitted by Bulldog to Bloomingdale Township.
He told jurors that Giannini first proposed the kickback scheme during a visit to the township quarry a few months after Czernek was appointed as highway commissioner in 2012.
“He said, ‘We can make some money on this,’ ” Czernek testified.
The scheme almost unabated for Czernek’s entire time in office, according to his plea agreement with prosecutors. The only exception was 2013, an election year, when it was agreed to pause the kickbacks because Czernek “did not want to draw any scrutiny,” according to his plea agreement with prosecutors.
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According to the plea, Czernek concealed the fraud by leaving handwritten notes for Giannini in various secluded places on Bloomingdale Township Highway Department property, according to his plea agreement with prosecutors.
The notes included a description of the work and number of hours purportedly spent by Bulldog on various projects. Fazio later submitted invoices to the township that repeated Czernek’s notes word for word, according to the plea agreement.
In order to conceal the extra money from his wife, Czernek told Giannini to have the kickbacks paid by checks written to an old trucking company he owned, Tri-State Express, according to the plea.
In pleading guilty, Czernek agreed to forfeit assets seized as part of the investigation, including about $28,000 in cash, a 1981 Corvette, a 2014 Lexus RX 350 and a 1966 Buick Wildcat.
In all, Kennelly ordered Czernek to pay about $540,000 in restitution. He must report to prison by Aug. 15.
Giannini was convicted at trial in May of 14 counts of wire fraud and sentenced to five years in federal prison. His girlfriend, Debra Fazio, was acquitted in rare fashion by Kennelly, who ruled in the middle of the trial that prosecutors had failed to prove Fazio had knowledge of the scheme or intentionally participated in it.