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FBI: Gardiner may have provided a developer ticket for Lightfoot’s induction during the bribery scheme

Four years ago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot received a standing ovation during her inaugural address when she lectured new City Council members about the advantages of their office.

“Reform is here,” he said.

It turns out that the ticket to hear Lightfoot’s tirade may have been part of a lengthy FBI bribery investigation into one of the Councilors on stage that day: Ald. Jim Gardiner (45th).

Gardiner may have provided the developer with a floor ticket to the event, court records show, and investigators took it as a sign that Gardiner felt “indebted” to the developer.

“Floor tickets,” Gardiner allegedly boasted in a text message.

That’s according to a series of FBI affidavits recently disclosed in redacted form that also show the FBI’s investigation of Gardiner was hindered by their inability to view “most” of the 4,000 text messages. The affidavit shows the FBI spent a year struggling to see the messages.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot waves to the crowd after taking the oath of office during a city of Chicago inauguration ceremony at Wintrust Arena.

Gardiner has not been charged with any criminal offense as a result of the investigation, which has spanned more than three years. He was re-elected this year, unlike Lightfoot who left office earlier this month.

Gardiner staff did not immediately comment when contacted by the Chicago Sun-Times.

The affidavit reveals that, even at a time that seemed to herald a new day in Chicago politics, another potential scandal was hovering in the background.

The Chicago Tribune earlier this month reported on one of the affidavits, which was filed in July 2020. Although heavily redacted, the notes show that the FBI is investigating whether Gardiner accepted a $5,000 bribe from developers to shut down Point at Six Corners. The FBI had developed a cooperative source in March 2020, the note said.

The July 2020 Affidavit requested a judge’s permission to search Apple iCloud accounts and seize certain text messages sent between February 2019 and July 2020. The iCloud account was used by “a private Chicago entrepreneur,” the records show. A series of affidavits filed separately partially explain what happened next.

Apple produced the information sought by the FBI in encrypted format in August 2020, according to the records. The data was first sent to a unit at FBI headquarters for decryption, then sent back to FBI Chicago, and then to the FBI Regional Computer Forensics Laboratory for analysis and formatting. The process was completed in mid-October 2020.

Analysis showed that someone used that iCloud account to send or receive about 4,000 messages between February 2019 and July 2020. But “due to an unexplained technology issue”, agents were unable to see “most” of the messages.

The agent then spent the next eight months trying to determine why the message could not be seen, he said. A prosecutor consulted with the Justice Department’s Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section. And the FBI tried to provide the original encrypted data to the Regional Computer Forensic Lab in June 2021. It didn’t work.

Then, “in a last-ditch effort to decrypt,” the original data is sent to FBI headquarters. As of July 7, 2021, the message is still not viewable, according to the affidavit.

The FBI finally requested permission in August 2021 to search the cell phone in hopes of recovering the messages, explaining to the judge that “fairly diligent efforts have failed to recover them.”

It is unclear whether the FBI has ever seen the message. But the investigation does not appear to have led to criminal charges.

Joseph Fitzpatrick, a spokesman for the Chicago US Attorney’s office, declined to comment.

Meanwhile, the FBI also indicated in an affidavit the messages they managed to recover. They said the message “significantly strengthens” probable cause in the case and strengthens their sources of cooperation “in a number of significant ways.”

They referred to “non-official” actions Gardiner allegedly took – revealed via messages – which suggested Gardiner felt “in debt” to the developer at issue in the case. The FBI called the action “highly significant” because it occurred in May 2019, around the time they suspected Gardiner of taking a $5,000 cash bribe.

In one text exchange, Gardiner allegedly offered the person a floor ticket “to what is believed to be the inauguration ceremony of the newly elected Chicago City Councilor,” the FBI explained, because the developer had been “very nice” to him.

The affidavit says the text exchange took place on May 19, 2020, but the context indicates that year was a typo. The cash payment at issue in the investigation allegedly occurred in May 2019. Footnotes point to May 19, 2019. And the city held an inaugural ceremony featuring Lightfoot’s speech on May 20, 2019.

“I got a second floor ticket, you were so nice to me,” Gardiner wrote in a text. “If you want to go, then go. If not, please let me know.

The developer allegedly replied, “Okay, I’m in[,] until tomorrow.”

“I put a ticket inside the door of the year,” wrote Gardiner.

And then Gardiner allegedly stressed, “Floor ticket”.

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