Ex-top aide to Daley pleads guilty to misusing charity funds

Tribune reporter

A onetime top aide to former Mayor Richard Daley pleaded guilty Tuesday to federal charges he stole thousands of dollars from two Chinatown charities and failed to report the money on his taxes.

Prosecutors said Gene Lee, a fixture in Chinatown who served for years as Daley's deputy chief of staff, misappropriated about $92,000 between 2007 and 2010, but his attorney disputed the extent of those losses.

Dressed in a gray suit and bright blue tie, Lee repeated, “Yes, your honor,” in a deep baritone as U.S. District Judge John Darrah asked him if he understood the ramifications of his guilty plea to one count each of embezzlement and tax evasion.

Lee, 65, who began working for the city in 1998 and left public service after Daley stepped down in 2011, declined comment as he left the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse and hailed a cab.

Lee was charged last summer with stealing donated funds while head of both the Chicago Chinatown Summer Fair, a popular annual festival, and the Chicago Dragons Athletic Association, a sponsor of youth and adult basketball and traditional dancing and music.

According to his plea agreement with prosecutors, Lee was responsible for soliciting donations for both organizations. He admitted that over a four-year period he created a separate invoice requesting some donations be payable directly to the Chicago Dragons, making it easier for him to hide how the money was being spent.

He also admitted he cashed more than 160 donation checks totaling $132,000 at an undisclosed Chinatown restaurant that employed a family friend. Lee then used a portion of those funds for personal expenses, prosecutors said.

In 2007 alone, Lee cashed more than $27,000 in donation checks at the restaurant and used about $19,000 for his own use, according to the plea agreement Lee also submitted a falsified expense summary about donations to the 2008 Summer Fair, indicating Home Depot and Western Union had given only $3,000 each when the companies had actually donated $5,000, according to the plea agreement.

The summary also omitted entire donations of $10,000 from McDonald’s, $5,000 from ComEd and $3,000 from Nielsen Media.

Lee’s attorney, Anthony Masciopinto, told the Tribune that Lee believed that he spent the money on legitimate charity-related expenses such as gas to drive to tournaments and new suits to wear when he was “wining and dining donors.”

Federal sentencing guidelines call for Lee to face up to 2 years in prison, but Masciopinto said he planned to ask for probation at Lee’s scheduled sentencing in August.Lee, who has no other criminal history, continues to be an active, well-respected member of the Chinatown community, his attorney said.

“It’s been his passion, and it will continue to be his passion,” Masciopinto said after the court hearing.

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