Ricardo Guzman, the truck driver involved in a fiery wreck in which six children died, paid a bribe to buy his truck-driving license two years before the 1994 crash, a key figure in the bribes-for-licenses probe of the Illinois secretary of state's office alleged Monday.
In pleading guilty to federal racketeering conspiracy charges, Gonzalo Mendoza maintained that he greased the skids for more than 80 truck drivers-- Guzman among them--to obtain automatic passing grades on written and road tests.
The bulk of the payoffs that Mendoza and others passed along to two managers at the secretary of state's licensing facility in McCook went to buy political fundraising tickets for then-Secretary of State George Ryan, now the governor, authorities have alleged.
Though the governor hasn't been accused of any wrongdoing, questions about exactly how Guzman obtained his license became an issue in the governor's race last year and the subject of a controversial Democratic campaign commercial.
Prosecutors maintained earlier this month that Guzman, despite his limited English, had obtained a commercial driver's license at McCook in whirlwind fashion in a single day with Mendoza's help. Yet they had stopped short of directly accusing Guzman of paying a bribe for his license.
On Monday, prosecutors used the disclosures in Mendoza's guilty plea to for the first time explicitly link Guzman to the bribery scheme. According to the plea agreement, Mendoza used longtime contacts with George Velasco and Marion Seibel, then manager and assistant manager, respectively, of the McCook facility, to automatically give passing grades to Guzman and more than 80 others on written exams in return for bribes.
Despite the allegations, sources said Guzman is unlikely to face federal charges. U.S. Atty. Scott Lassar has said truck drivers who fraudulently obtained their licenses in the scheme won't be targeted for prosecution. Though Guzman's case has become notorious, the bribe payer is technically considered the victim of a shakedown under federal extortion laws, authorities said.
Guzman's lawyer didn't return telephone calls Monday from the Tribune.
Further charges involving similar misconduct at other secretary of state licensing facilities are likely in coming weeks, according to law-enforcement sources.
Mendoza, an employee of several trucking companies, is the 13th defendant overall to be convicted so far in the federal Operation Safe Road probe. Supervisors at licensing facilities at Melrose Park and Chicago's South Side as well as McCook have admitted wrongdoing in the scandal, resulting, authorities say, in hundreds of unqualified truck drivers plying the state's highways and roads.
During the five-year scheme, applicants like Guzman paid Mendoza $800 to $1,200 each, authorities said. Mendoza said he pocketed "a small amount" of the cash payoffs for himself and passed the bulk of the money to Velasco and Seibel.
Velasco and Seibel, allegedly under pressure to sell political fundraising tickets to advance in the secretary of state's office, funneled most of the bribes--well in excess of a combined $100,000 by prosecutors' account--to Ryan's campaign coffers, authorities have alleged.
According to Mendoza's plea agreement, bribe-paying applicants, many of whom couldn't speak English, were escorted to a back room at McCook and given answers to written tests, including an exam for hauling hazardous materials.
Secretary of state records indicate Velasco authorized an oral test for Guzman and Seibel conducted the road test and issued Guzman his license, all on the same day in November 1992.
Almost exactly two years later, a 42-pound taillight assembly fell from Guzman's truck on a Milwaukee-area expressway, piercing the gas tank of a van carrying the family of a Southwest Side minister, causing an explosion and fire.
Rev. Duane Willis and his wife, Janet, recently settled their civil lawsuit over the crash for $100 million, including $1 million from the trucking company Guzman worked for at the time.
Guzman's role in the fatal 1994 crash became a bitter issue in last year's governor's race, especially after a TV advertisement on behalf of Democratic candidate Glenn Poshard blamed Ryan for the deaths of the Willises' six children.
The ad, paid for by the Illinois Democratic Party, showed a black-and-white photo of the charred wreckage of the Willises' minivan as a narrator noted: "Six children are dead. His office riddled with corruption and George Ryan wants to be our governor?"
At the time, Ryan aides blasted the ad as a "new low" for the campaign and Ryan himself denied Guzman obtained his license illegally.
But on Tuesday, as he has done as the indictments and guilty pleas piled up, Ryan issued a statement saying he was "completely supportive" of the efforts of law enforcement. He reiterated his anger over what he called "the betrayal of the public trust brought to light by this investigation."
Poshard and a spokesman for Illinois House Speaker and state Democratic Party Chairman Michael Madigan contended that Mendoza's plea agreement proved the validity of the campaign allegations.
"We only said that a process was in place that allowed unqualified people to be on the highway, which could lead to putting peoples' lives at stake," said Poshard, now vice chancellor of administration at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.
"And the fact that bribes were being paid to benefit a political campaign which made it possible for these people to be on the road is unconscionable," Poshard said. "That's all we ever said and now we find out that was true."
Poshard, a former congressman from Marion, also suggested the bribery scheme went higher in the ranks of Ryan's secretary of state administration.
"The crucial question is, `Who were Velasco and Seibel reporting to?' " Poshard said. "I can't believe they took it upon themselves to do this on their own."
Assistant U.S. Attys. Amy St. Eve and Patrick Collins said that Mendoza, 58, of Stickney, faces a sentence of 21 to 27 months in prison when he is sentenced Jan. 28.
Tribune staff writers Rick Pearson, Ted Gregory and Monica Davey contributed to this report.