BY CHRIS FUSCO Staff Reporter, Chicago Sun Times, August 23, 2013
Over the past two years, I’ve written a couple dozen stories about disabled-parking abuses at parking meters in Chicago — a problem that’s cost city taxpayers millions of dollars.
The amount of cheating — and the shamelessness of those doing it — ticked off so many people that a new law overhauling state disability parking rules will take effect Jan. 1.
None of this would have happened without a retired Chicago Police lieutenant who owns a lot of wigs and hats.
Robert Angone, a 33-year CPD veteran, noticed an uptick in able-bodied drivers using handicapped placards to avoid feeding parking payboxes in late 2010. His daughter, Michael, now 21, lost her left leg to cancer as a baby, so he’d become familiar with the placard system over the years.
Normally, Angone’s daughter gets around fine on a prosthetic leg and doesn’t use her placard. But that leg had broken, temporarily forcing her onto crutches on winter snow and ice.
“So she had to use her placard,” Angone, 73, recalls, and “in some cases it was impossible because of the seemingly healthy people” hanging placards and parking free at meters all day long.
There was ample incentive to cheat; parking rates had skyrocketed under the dreaded meter-privatization deal of 2008.
An infuriated Angone says he repeatedly called Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Office for People with Disabilities to complain. Days passed before he got a call back saying “don’t worry about it” because City Hall was aware of the issue.
He tried to get his alderman, Robert Fioretti (2nd), on the phone. “No dice,” he says.
The Illinois secretary of state’s office heard him out, but the problem persisted.
So in the summer of 2011, Angone called me.
I met him near his home in the South Loop, and he showed me block after block where cars with placards (or disability license plates) were at least as plentiful as those displaying parking-paybox tickets.
It seemed clear most of these people were cheating, but it would be tough to prove.
So, with permission from my bosses, Angone and I worked out a deal: He volunteered to spend eight to 12 hours a day documenting each time he saw people hang placards and scurry away.
Then, when he spotted a repeat cheater, I went out to observe alongside him — many times with a Sun-Times videographer and photographer in tow. The cheaters had no idea Angone had been watching them for days because he had a different disguise each time.
I figured out the driver’s identities using public records and then confronted them over the phone or in person.
The ensuing “Meter Cheaters” series and video published in November 2011 got under a lot of people’s skin.
And then it got into everybody’s pocketbook. City taxpayers, I learned, were on the hook to reimburse the parking meter company for free disability parking — a tab that now stands at $55 million.
The new law, drafted by former state Rep. Karen May (D-Highland Park), creates a “meter-exempt” placard that’s supposed to allow only people who physically can’t feed meters to park for free.
Last week, city workers canvassed downtown streets placing fliers that resemble traffic tickets on cars with handicapped placards to warn motorists that the free parking ride is over come Jan. 1 unless a meter-exempt placard is displayed.
As I reported that story, I couldn’t help but think of Angone in a cap, wig and/or sunglasses doing the shoe-leather work that helped prove that cheating was rampant.
Something tells me he’ll be on the street again New Year’s Day, looking for that driver who still thinks he can get away with hanging a relative’s meter-exempt placard to cheat the system.
If the crafty cop spots one, he knows how to find me.