Ex-Bloomingdale Township official Czernek says couple paid him off, but defense warns jury not to trust him

A couple accused of paying more than $281,000 in kickbacks to Bloomingdale Township’s disgraced former highway commissioner pointed the finger right back at him Friday, calling Robert Czernek a liar who can’t be trusted as their federal fraud trial got underway.

Debra Fazio and Mario Giannini were charged along with Czernek back in August 2020 and accused of an eight-year scheme in which Bloomingdale Township improperly paid more than $700,000 to Bulldog Earth Movers, an excavation company owned by Fazio.

On Friday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Saurish Appleby-Bhattacharjee kicked off opening statements in the trial of Fazio and Giannini. He told jurors that “greed” led the couple “to seek out easy money.”

Giannini’s attorney countered that the case was really about “trust” — and whether jurors could believe Czernek, who is now the feds’ key witness in the trial.

Czernek pleaded guilty in March to honest services wire fraud, and his plea agreement alleged that he hatched the scheme with Giannini in 2012. While it allegedly began with a plan to pad invoices, it evolved until the men agreed to have Bulldog bill the township for work that it never performed, according to the plea deal.

The highway commissioner left handwritten notes for Giannini on the grounds of the Bloomingdale Township Highway Department, providing information Bulldog needed to include on bogus invoices, the plea deal said. The document also said that Czernek told Giannini to deliver his money through checks in the name of a defunct trucking company of Czernek’s, Tri-State Express, to hide the money from Czernek’s wife.

Though Czernek typically would have faced a likely sentence of up to nine years, he agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in exchange for a potential sentencing break. He is expected to testify at the trial of Fazio and Giannini.

Defense attorneys for the couple warned jurors Friday that Czernek is a convicted felon who betrayed the trust of their clients and his constituents.

“The government wants you to trust him now, and I ask you not to,” Susan Pavlow, Giannini’s defense attorney, said.

Fazio’s defense attorney, Heather Winslow, noted that Fazio was not involved in any of the key conversations with Czernek.

“Ms. Fazio paid invoices that were presented to her, deposited checks that were given to her, and she did all of this believing that those checks and invoices were for lawfully performed work,” Winslow said.

Winslow and Pavlow described Bulldog as a two-person operation. Pavlow told jurors that, “Mario digs the holes, Deb does the books.” She said Giannini did not understand the inner-workings of local government, and she said he was deceived by Czernek.

Meanwhile, she said prosecutors don’t have any recordings of the conversations in which the men purportedly discussed the purpose of the payments.

“Nothing other than Czernek’s words about what those payments represent,” she said.

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