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Federal prosecutors investigating Cook County land bank, deals involving former employee: records

Wednesday, June 23, 2021
Chicago Tribune
by Alice Yin, Jason Meisner and Gregory Pratt

Federal prosecutors last month subpoenaed the Cook County Land Bank Authority for records as part of an ongoing criminal investigation into the program, which was formed to promote economic development in blighted communities that‚€™s also been the subject of controversy.

The subpoena sent May 21 requested records involving the sale of 24 properties by the land bank as well as emails and other records relating to Mustafaa Saleh, the agency‚€™s former senior asset manager, records released in response to a Tribune Freedom of Information Act request show.

Cook County Commissioner Bridget Gainer, D-Chicago, who is the land bank‚€™s chairwoman, characterized the criminal investigation as a ‚€údocument request‚€Ě but declined further comment. Land bank spokeswoman Tarrah Cooper said the agency is cooperating with investigators.

‚€úIt‚€™s news to me,‚€Ě Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said Wednesday when asked about the subpoena.

The investigation appears to be in its early stages and no criminal charges have been filed.

Saleh, 35, of Woodridge, was a $75,000-a-year senior asset manager for the Cook County Land Bank Authority until 2019, records show. He was responsible for overseeing all property acquisitions and holdings for the agency.

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Last September, a year after he left the Land Bank, he appeared at the agency‚€™s monthly meeting to report that he had surpassed the one-year period prohibiting former employees from purchasing properties from the agency, minutes of the meeting show.

‚€úYou‚€™re correct in that the county rule is one year and that‚€™s really all we can say today,‚€Ě Chairman Peter Friedman said.

‚€úI just wanted to note that for the record and what I would do naturally is I would like to move forward and I will begin applying for properties; but, again, I just wanted that on public record,‚€Ě Saleh said, according to the minutes.

A letter attached to the subpoena notes it‚€™s part of a criminal investigation. The subpoena sought all documents records, memos, notes and correspondence, including but not limited to email communications, pertaining to any properties obtained and sold by the Cook County Land Bank Authority involving Saleh.

Prosecutors also sought ‚€úany and all correspondence‚€Ě related to Saleh‚€™s resignation.

In addition to Saleh, the subpoena requests records on a company called Dynamic Developers. State records show Saleh is the founder and president of Dynamic Developers Inc.

According to the biography he had¬ on the Land Bank‚€™s website, before working at his county post, Saleh had previously worked as a portfolio manager for Galaxy Properties ‚€úwhere he oversaw residential and commercial assets‚€Ě and ‚€úmanaged property maintenance, facility projects, and new construction projects.‚€Ě

When he filed for bankruptcy in 2015, however, Saleh didn‚€™t mention any work for a Galaxy Properties. Instead, he said in the sworn paperwork that he was a sales manager at Galaxy Furniture, a discount furniture store on the 3400 block of West Montrose Avenue, where he earned about $2,600 a month.

Saleh, who said he‚€™d previously worked as a taxi driver, listed more than $3,000 in back taxes owed to the IRS as well as tens of thousands of dollars in outstanding student loans and credit card debt. The bankruptcy was discharged several months later, records show.

Saleh could not be reached for comment. A person who picked up a phone registered in his name hung up on a reporter.

News of the federal probe comes as the executive director of the Cook County Land Bank Authority is¬ stepping down after six years of heading the agency¬ tasked with getting vacant land redeveloped. Eleanor Gorski, a former city commissioner with the Department of Planning and Development, was named as the next head of the land bank Tuesday, according to a news release.

Robert Rose submitted his resignation letter to Preckwinkle earlier this year. Rose was hired in 2015, two years after Gainer set up the land bank. The group aims to promote development in blighted communities by acquiring and selling foreclosed and abandoned properties in Cook County.

The agency has¬ received plaudits¬ for the work it does to restore properties in distressed neighborhoods. The Land Bank acquires vacant, abandoned, foreclosed and tax-delinquent properties to prepare for sale to rehabbers and developers in several ways.

But it has also been the source of scrutiny and controversy. The Land Bank has been the subject of¬ Sun-Times investigations¬ probing its deals, prompting Preckwinkle to commission an¬ outside audit¬ that determined the agency needs to do more to avoid conflicts and ensure it‚€™s selling land to qualified buyers.

It was also¬ criticized by Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas¬ for taking properties off the market, slowing potential development in blighted areas.

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