HUTCHINS — There might not seem to be much value to old pipes and water or gas meters dug out of the ground to be replaced with updated units.
But the metal they are made from is worth something. And if you amass enough of it, it can be worth a lot.
The City of Hutchins public works director Ronnie O'Brien and several of his employees figured that out, police Chief Frank McElligot said.
"They were removing city property — sometimes precious metals, brass, that sort of thing — and selling it to recyclers and pocketing the money," the chief said.
He and his investigators spent 16 months looking into a tip from another city employee who had been accused of stealing money from municipal coffers. She began spilling the beans about other alleged corruption within City Hall.
McElligot said he was surprised to find out how widespread it was.
"In excess of $25,000 that we can document," he said. "That's a great deal of money for a city the size of Hutchins.
The chief also said some who weren't involved were aware of what was going on.
At least some of the scrapping was done in city vehicles by employees wearing city uniforms while on city time, he said.
"I've got a calendar with dates of who sold what and how much they made," McElligot said.
O'Brien resigned in October. A grand jury indicted him and seven of his former employees for engaging in organized criminal activity.
The grand jury also indicted Hutchins Mayor Artis Johnson for criminal conspiracy and abuse of official capacity. Johnson allegedly received a check from O'Brien that was made out to the city by one of the recycling companies. Johnson then handed it over to the finance director, who deposited it to the general fund... and then cut a check in the same amount to O'Brien.
Johnson did not appear at Monday night's City Council meeting. His absence was a "rarity," according to those who regularly attend.
The mayor's attorney, State Rep. Royce West, said his client is innocent and he will vigorously defend him.
"I look forward to putting the Chief of Police on the stand,” West said. “I’m asking people to withhold judgment about Artis Johnson until he’s had his day in court.”
The Council meeting Monday night went on without Johnson.
"It's just an investigation, and until further notice, it's no comment," said Council member Mario Vasquez.
Colleague Raymond Elmore added, "We just believe in the Council and the mayor and, no comment."
Sitting beside Elmore was City Secretary Janis Daniels, who was also indicted for theft. She allegedly racked up almost $600 in personal charges on the city credit card. She declined to comment.
McElligot defended his investigation into the people who sign his paycheck.
"I did what I think is right," he said. "All police officers have a duty and responsibility to follow up on all leads, and — especially when it comes to policing our own — we have to have a level playing field. There can be no favoritism. Our code of ethics says we'll follow up on things no matter who is involved, and that's what we did in this case," he said.