Alderman lavished with cash, luxury trips by program for Caribbean med students

Alderman lavished with cash, luxury trips by program for Caribbean med students

Ald. George Cardenas (12th). | Rich HeinSun-Times file

Ald. George Cardenas was a consultant for a Chicago business where one partner is suing another, accusing her of misusing company funds — in part to benefit Cardenas.

A Chicago doctor is suing his business partner, accusing her of “looting” more than $3.7 million from their business to finance an “extravagant lifestyle” and to lavish Ald. George Cardenas (12th) with luxurious trips, an expensive watch and a monthly stipend for consulting services.

Cardenas had been hired to drum up business for Omni Medical Student Training, which places students from Caribbean medical schools in residency programs with Chicago hospitals. The alderman wasn’t very successful in getting hospitals to sign up, though, according to the suit.

Omni’s owners — Dr. Vivek Gupta and Theresa Siaw — are fighting in court over her use of Omni’s money the past five years, including payments to Cardenas, for Siaw’s mortgage and as much as $370,000 spent on her failed bid to defeat Ald. Robert Maldonado (26th) last year.

Three months after Siaw lost that election, Gupta filed suit in Cook County circuit court, accusing his partner of spending Omni’s money without his approval.

Gupta says in the lawsuit that he discovered this after the Internal Revenue Service began auditing the company. He says the unauthorized expenses continued this summer, with Siaw withdrawing $251,442 from an Omni bank account, according to the suit.

Siaw, 33, says she didn’t spend money without Gupta’s approval. In sworn pretrial testimony in a deposition she gave earlier this year, Siaw says Gupta gave her permission to use Omni’s money to run for alderman and that he sued her because she ended their sexual relationship.

Gupta and his lawyer William Quinlan won’t comment.

City Hall Inspector General Joseph Ferguson questioned Siaw earlier this year as part of an investigation into Cardenas’ campaign finances. Siaw fought his subpoena in court for nearly a year before agreeing to talk with his staff.

Cardenas, 55, won’t talk about the $6,000 in campaign contributions he got from Siaw, their trips to Miami and Los Angeles seeking hospitals to accept the Caribbean medical students or the $5,000 watch he got as a bonus from Omni and then wouldn’t return when a hospital decided against working with the company after all.

The alderman — whose ward includes Little Village and Brighton Park — says he “provided consulting services to Theresa Siaw years ago.” He referred question to his lawyer Ricardo Meza, a former federal prosecutor and state inspector general, who says, “George Cardenas has done nothing wrong.”

Siaw says she met Cardenas in 2012 when her boyfriend, Dr. Amer Rustom, ran the San Pablo Medical Center inside a building the alderman and his family owned at 2829 W. Cermak Rd. Siaw, who was pregnant with Rustom’s son, signed a five-year lease with a minimum yearly rent of $32,400.

“He didn’t tell me he was an alderman,” Siaw says of Cardenas. “When my son’s father drowned, that’s when I started to get close to Cardenas. I was just mutual friends with Cardenas.”

Chicago businesswoman and former 26th Ward aldermanic candidate Theresa Siaw.Rich Hein / Sun-Times file
Chicago businesswoman and former 26th Ward aldermanic candidate Theresa Siaw.

Rustom was boating on Lake Michigan with friends in September 2014 when he drowned, leaving behind four sons he had with three women.

Siaw met Gupta months later, and, in June 2015, they started Omni Medical Training, a program similar to Siaw’s previous business, International Medical Placement. Omni Medical Training operated out of Weiss Memorial Hospital until August, according to a Weiss spokeswoman who says the lease ended and that the North Side hospital no longer uses Omni to place students.

In her deposition, Siaw says the alderman recommended the company hire his brother Jose Cardenas as Omni’s accountant and that Jose Cardenas prepared the 2016 federal tax returns that the IRS later audited.

Between 2016 and 2017, Siaw says she paid Cardenas Consulting $28,900, using Omni’s money.

In 2016, Siaw made two contributions, totaling $6,000, to the alderman’s campaign. She says she made those political contributions using Omni’s money.

Cardenas helped Gupta get a contract with Cook County Care, a Medicaid plan run by the Cook County Health and Hospitals System, according to Siaw’s deposition. She says the alderman also helped Gupta join the Chicago Housing Authority’s health partners program.

Siaw says Cardenas was paid between $2,200 and $2,500 a month to help Omni try to arrange to place medical students at Mount Sinai Hospital, Rush University Medical Center and St. Anthony Hospital — but they struck out.

“I always consulted with George Cardenas because he has brought contracts to Omni,” Siaw says in the sworn testimony. “He’s helped me, you know, get a connection with some hospitals.”

Siaw testified that she had agreed to give Cardenas a $5,000 bonus if he could help Omni secure a contract with Rush and that Cardenas asked for a watch from Razny Jewelers on the Gold Coast.

“I discussed it with Dr. Gupta,” Siaw told attorneys in the civil case. “I never had somebody ask me for something like that before.”

Siaw testified she bought the watch for Cardenas but that the deal with Rush fell through, and the alderman wouldn’t return the watch: “He basically told me that he’s not giving it back.”

Meza denies that.

“Cardenas was not paid for services rendered and was owed a substantial amount of money by one or more of the business partners,” Meza says. “The watch was payment for some but not all past-due services owed.”

He says Cardenas was supposed to have been paid $2,000 a month but that, “For many months, he was not paid at all.”

He says the alderman’s work for Omni ended in 2017.

Cardenas accompanied Siaw on two trips, trying to land deals for Omni to place Caribbean medical school students at hospitals in Miami and Los Angeles, records show. In December 2016, they stayed in a two-bedroom suite at the luxury Fontainebleau Miami Beach hotel, costing the company more than $19,000, according to records. Siaw testified that no other rooms were available. She also spent $17,199 at a Miami nightclub.

In June 2017, they stayed at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, according to the suit, which doesn’t detail the cost.

Siaw also used Omni’s checking account to buy two vehicles for $88,854, including a BMW that Cardenas was allowed to drive. Siaw says Cardenas drove the car for just 12 miles but refused to return it to her.

“I thought he was avoiding me when I asked him for the car,” Siaw told the Chicago Sun-Times. “Our relationship ended over a car.

“We were really good friends for a long time. It soured because he wasn’t delivering what I was paying for.”

On Aug. 25, Siaw was removed as Omni’s manager by an arbitrator, former federal prosecutor James S. Montana Jr., who is presiding over the case under the terms of Omni’s operating agreement.

“The record in this matter is brimming with evidence of Ms. Siaw’s unauthorized, personal use of Omni Student funds, including extensive admissions by Ms. Siaw during hearing testimony,” Montana wrote. “Ms. Siaw has demonstrated she is essentially incapable of not using Omni Student’s funds for her personal use.”

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