FOX 32 investigates Bellwood official`s use of free gas - KMSP-TV

FOX 32 investigates Bellwood official`s use of free gas

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CHICAGO (FOX 32 News) -

Nobody likes paying high prices at the pump.

So wouldn't it be nice to get virtually all the gas you wanted for free?

Going off an anonymous tip, FOX 32 began to investigate Bellwood, where it was alleged that free gas was being given to politicians.

Bellwood abruptly pulled the plug on the free gas once FOX 32's Dane Placko started poking around.

Even though it seems hard to believe, for decades politicians there have been putting thousands of gallons of village gas in their personal cars, and it's possible they may have been breaking the law.

Usually, elected officials love to talk, but when questioned about the free gas at a recent village board meeting, west suburban Bellwood officials stayed quiet.

Here's what they don't want to talk about.

Tucked away behind Bellwood's Public Works building are three gas pumps to fuel Bellwood's fleet of police cars, fire trucks and other vehicles owned by the village.

Acting on a tip, FOX 32's Dane Placko filed a freedom of information request to see who else had been given cards to dip into the supply of taxpayer-funded gas.

We found since 2011, Bellwood's six elected trustees have pumped nearly 1,100 gallons into their personal vehicles costing taxpayers approximately $35,000.

They didn't have to show why they were using the gas or keep any records.

The village of Bellwood is two and a half square miles.

Trustee Ed Lezza pumped more than 2,500 gallons into his car, which works out to 70 free gallons a month.

"It was something I got when I became a trustee. It was an inherited thing," Lezza said.

That's right.

However, Bellwood says it can't find any written policy allowing the free gas, and it's not mentioned in the village code setting the trustees' salaries.

"I think it's a big problem," Former State Senator Susan Garrett said.

Garrett now works at the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

She says by taking free gas the trustees could be violating the Illinois law that requires their incomes be fixed in the budget.

"In effect what they're doing is paying them a lot more in a perk, something that nobody knows about. That's adding to their compensation package without anybody telling anybody or letting anybody know," Garrett said.

So FOX 32 went outside City Hall and asked a few Bellwood residents paying their bills about the issue.

But a funny thing happened after we did a freedom of information request last November to find out who's been using how much, suddenly the pumps got turned off."

Bellwood Mayor Frank Pasquale issued an executive order ending the decades-old practice on January 1.

When asked why he waited to shut it off, he said he sent his only response in writing and had nothing else to say.

Maybe that's because the mayor and the Village Clerk continue to get the free gas, although they also drive vehicles owned by the village.

The mayor has an M-plated Dodge Challenger sports car that cost taxpayers $43,000. The only trustee willing to defend the pricey perk is longtime board member M.C.Robinson.

A lawyer for Bellwood told FOX 32 that under state law, they don't have to specify compensation for business related duties.

He says the policy allowing the free gas was in place for years, even though it was never written down.

The trustees may face an even bigger problem though, the IRS.

FOX 32 has been told that at least some of them did not report the gas perk as income, which means they could be responsible for back taxes on thousands of dollars in off-the-books compensation.

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