In March 2002, a former Cook County police officer and his wife were convicted of bilking the government by submitting billings for security work that was never performed at one of the nation's most dangerous housing projects, the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago.
And ever since their convictions, James and Janice Skrzypek have waged a fight from behind bars to prove they were set up.
In their latest effort to win a new federal trial, the Skrzypeks have sued indicted private investigator Anthony Pellicano, alleging that the well-known forensics expert falsified tapes to further the government's aims.
In their lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, the Skrzypeks allege that Pellicano and others, including unnamed federal agents, falsified audio recordings to make it appear that the couple knew that attempts were being made to bribe Chicago Housing Authority officials to overlook billing irregularities by the Skrzypek's security firm.
Describing three audiotapes as "the linchpin" of the government's case against them, the Skrzypeks maintain the conversations involving bribery never occurred and that the incriminating tapes were manufactured.
"I want those tapes because they will prove our innocence," James Skrzypek said by phone from a federal prison in Duluth, Minn. "And I will go to my grave fighting this because we were convicted based on false evidence."
A well-known private investigator who first examined the case five years ago said the Skrzypeks were wrongfully convicted.
"By all standards of the criminal justice system, they should not have been found guilty," Paul Ciolino said. "There is also no doubt the tapes were doctored. Did Anthony do it? I don't know, [but] there is no question that Anthony made stuff up for the government over the years."
Pellicano, who is in custody awaiting trial in federal court in Los Angeles on charges of wiretapping and racketeering, could not be reached for comment.
Chicago FBI spokesman Ross Rice said he had not seen the lawsuit but said of the Skrzypeks: "They went to trial, they were convicted. And they lost an appeal. I don't know what I could add to that."
A spokesmen for the U.S. attorney's office in Chicago declined to comment.
During a five-week trial, federal prosecutors accused the couple of fraud, money laundering, obstruction of justice and other crimes for allegedly bilking the housing authority and Internal Revenue Service out of several million dollars for phantom security guards and for taxes that were never paid.
The scam, authorities alleged, began not long after the couple's firm, Federal Security Inc., won a contract in 1991 to safeguard Chicago's housing projects, eventually becoming the agency's largest security provider, with contracts for 42 buildings.
The government's evidence included tapes made by an informant that suggested the Skrzypeks were aware of the fraud and conspired with one of their employees to bribe a city housing authority official.
Before the trial, according to the couple's lawsuit, they contacted a forensics expert in Wisconsin to prove the government tapes were fabricated. When the expert was not granted access to the original tapes by the FBI, the lawsuit says, the Skrzypeks took their lawyer's advice and sought out a second forensics expert: Pellicano.
About November 2001, according to the lawsuit, the couple contacted Pellicano at his Sunset Strip offices and retained him to test the government tapes. Pellicano said he would have no difficulty with access, bragging that the FBI routinely brought tapes to his office for analysis. "I do more tapes for them than Quantico," the lawsuit quotes Pellicano as saying, referring to the site of the FBI's training academy.
Several weeks later, the lawsuit says, Pellicano called the couple and said he had gotten the FBI to provide him with the audiotapes. But after that call, the suit says, Pellicano abruptly canceled his agreement with the Skrzypeks to test them, leading the couple to believe he "had been involved earlier with the fabrication of the tape recordings in question."
Pellicano, who testified numerous times for the FBI and other agencies, is accused in his own criminal case of using a proprietary computer program called Audiosleuth that could enhance tape recordings. In their lawsuit, the Skrzypeks recalled that Pellicano in the early 1990s demonstrated to a Los Angeles Times reporter how he could alter an innocent recording to make it appear incriminating.