It seems like Chicago is a city under investigative siege.
The U.S. Department of Justice has arrived and is in its “pattern or practice” investigation of the Chicago Police Department. The U.S. Attorney’s Office is investigating possible civil rights violations and obstruction of justice charges in the Laquan McDonald case – and that probe seems to be reaching into the Chicago Police Department’s command staff if the number of grand jury witnesses is any indication. The city is hoping to dodge calls for the DOJ to investigate its law department by to review its practices in light of a judge’s rebuke of an attorney for hiding evidence in a trial. Then there is Jason Van Dyke himself, being tried by the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office.
Even that isn’t enough for some folks: There are calls for the feds, cast in the role of white knight to the city’s compromised locals, to – and Homan Square. (.) An organization representing African-American firefighters has asked the Justice Department to investigate hiring at the Chicago Fire Department. Beyond our esteemed public safety agencies, the Chicago City Council is about to come under more scrutiny from an inspector general’s office expanding its jurisdiction – unless Aldermen Ed Burke and Carrie Austin . There’s also the ongoing Barbara Byrd-Bennett case – she’s pled guilty but the investigation into those around her continues.
Most of these investigations center around harm done to young people – the killing of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, primarily, but also and the entirety of a population targeted most by police, and damaged most by institutions such as the Chicago Public Schools. The complex interplay of criminal justice, education and mental health is seen nowhere more dramatically than in the way young people interact with the city. So while it might seem like the whole city is under investigation, I’d argue that not enough of it is.
Is there any part of the city that isn’t under investigation? Yes, there is – too much of it, in fact!
Imagine, if you will, the feds coming in and investigating everything: the CHA, the CTA, the TIF program, the Park District, Streets and San, our contract-laden airports . . . investigate it all! Leave no greasy stone unturned. Pick the city clean!
It won’t happen, of course, but there’s a point to this thought experiment: Chicago is almost assuredly at least 10 times more corrupt than we know. Federal investigations and media reports most likely account for maybe a tenth of all the (major) wrongdoing going on in city government, by my reckoning. (And that excludes the escapades of the private sector and, for the sake of this column, the county and the state). Doubt it? Let’s just run down the year 2015 in corruption to get a taste of what we know – and then consider what we don’t.
In no particular order, the below scandals – many ongoing – have stained this city’s reputation:
The biggee: Even as CPS was shutting down 50 schools and pleading poverty so extreme it , CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett was making bank taking kickbacks for steering contracts to her consulting friends.
B3 provided us with the year’s big quote (“”) and was marked as the second of two schools chiefs appointed by Rahm Emanuel to prove embarrassing, but the corruption in the system undoubtedly runs much, much deeper – much deeper even than . The whole system is shrouded in mystery and dysfunction, and that’s a climate in which corruption thrives.
Then we have the red light camera bribery scandal, in which a city transportation official took bribes to steer the program’s contract to Redflex and which shows us that business-as-usual is still usual in Chicago. Redflex’s top executives resigned and the company has been on life support as cities the world over have withdrawn or at least reviewed their contracts with the firm. As if to drive the point home, the trial of the city official at the center of the saga began last week with “.”
(Similarly, the city’s infamous deal to lease it’s parking meters to a private consortium led by Morgan Stanley for what turned out to be a pittance continues to deliver textbook lessons on our local folkways, as the Tribune reported last week: “Seven years after former Mayor Richard Daley pushed through his much-loathed $1.15 billion deal to lease the city’s parking meters, a former executive has been quietly charged with taking kickbacks to steer a multimillion-dollar contract to install the privately owned meters.”)
And the parade of Chicago aldermen going to prison continued in 2015, with Sandi Jackson .
True, the Jacksons’ crime of looting Junior’s campaign fund to pay for personal amenities such as two stuffed Elk heads and a raft of Michael Jackson memorabilia was more against their contributors than taxpayers, though omitting income from their tax forms was also at issue (plenty of her constituents would say Sandi’s absentee stewardship was a crime of its own.) But what really hurt was that Junior was once a lonely voice speaking up against the utter corruption of the Daley administration – at a time when Barack Obama was backing the mayor.
Another alderman has escaped such a fate, but his chief of staff did not. While Howard Brookins runs for Congress against Bobby Rush, his former top aide sits in the pokey for a pittance – accepting a $7,500 bribe for fixing a liquor license. Speaking of Bobby Rush, he of Illinois congressman likely to go to prison outside of Aaron Schock, the former U.S. representative who resigned amidst a federal investigation into his spending habits. Rush avoided a full-scale House Ethics Committee investigation into alleged campaign fund improprieties, but continues to be the subject of news stories detailing a myriad of potentially sleazy conflicts of interests.
While the problems of Jackson predecessor Mel Reynolds are personal and not indicative of the type of systemic corruption we are examining here, I’d be remiss to not mention that in 2015, this time for allegedly failing to file federal income taxes for three years. (Controversial Reynolds predecessor Gus Savage died last year, reminding us that the Second District, which includes some of Chicago’s neediest residents, has represented by some of the neediest politicians in recent memory.
Of course, the Big Tuna caught in the feds’ net as far as Illinois congressmen go last year was Dennis Hastert, who to pay off a former student he allegedly abused way back when. Now, Hastert’s district was suburban and I’m not really venturing outside of Chicago for this article, but in this case I think an exception is warranted in this case. As House Speaker, Hastert represented us all, and was third in line to the presidency for godsakes.
Turning to Chicago’s contribution to the state legislature, former South Side Rep. Connie Howard was sentenced to three months in prison . Fore!
Federal investigators are also knee-deep into the office of Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown; the first indictment is hardly expected to be the last in the feds’ probe of a “pay-to-play” hiring scheme.
The Richard J. Daley Center in downtown Chicago, home to many government offices at the county level, as well as courtrooms and court records. Photo for The Youth Project by Jenna Braunstein
Then there’s public corruption of a different but common sort; it doesn’t emanate from an elected official per se, but from what some might call the deep state, the unelected shadow government where true power resides and rules the city. An example might be the case of Alexander Igolnikov, a Russian immigrant who “was sentenced Thursday to a year in federal prison for his role in a scheme to falsify documents so he could illegally convert 112 salvaged cars into taxis, creating Chicago’s largest fleet of cabs for his boss, a close friend of former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s son.”
That’s more how the Machine grinds along under the glitter.
A workaday example: the Chicago revenue inspector sentenced last spring for his role in a scheme to by tipping them off to imminent inspections.
That’s just Chicago; every year we cream a few sacrificial lambs off the top while everyone else beneath the surface keeps the gears moving.
Most of the corruption in Chicago isn’t necessarily even illegal. But the behavior does raise all sorts of other – perhaps moral – concerns.
Take the empires of Ald. Ed Burke, the city council’s eminence grise, and state House Speaker , who have side businesses helping clients lower their tax bills. It all appears perfectly legal, but gives off the awful stench of extraordinary scammery.
Or father-son combinations like the Lipinskis, who have essentially privatized a U.S. congressional seat. The elder Lipinski, Bill, is the former congressman who bequeathed his seat to his son, Dan, after a long, clout-filled ride. Now Bill is a lobbyist for clients who have business before the sitting congressman, his son.
Or Chicago specials like former school board member Deborah Quazzo. Quazzo, the Sun-Times , “voted to support charter-school networks that have given more than $1 million in business to companies in which Quazzo has an ownership stake.” How symmetrical.
Those are just some of the starring attractions. Is it any wonder young people are cynical? Look at the behavior adults are modeling.
The 10 Percent
Now, why do I think this is only a tenth, at best, of all the bad stuff going on? Because reporters only have so much time to pursue their leads; if news organizations, for example, had twice the investigative staffs, we’d see twice the number of investigative reports. We are limited only by what we can afford to find out.
The same goes with the authorities. The U.S. Attorney’s Office, in conjunction with the FBI, operates under a budget. Some U.S. attorneys put more effort into public corruption than others. When Zach Fardon replaced Patrick Fitzgerald, for example, a lot of politicians urged Fardon to redirect resources from corruption to gang violence. Fardon, like news organizations, has to make choices.
The U.S. Department of Justice also must make choices. The CPD has engaged in enough egregious behavior over the years to have inspired a DOJ examination many times over. wasn’t enough? David Koschman wasn’t enough? ? Miedzianowski? ? Jason Van Dyke is just the latest rogue cop who illustrates that perhaps the whole department is rogue. I bet we don’t know the half of it. Or, more like, the 90 percent of it.
And what we do know is often simply a result of luck or the work of a single whistleblower or reporter. If it wasn’t for Sarah Karp, for example, being so damn curious about that $20 million no-bid contract, we might never have learned of Byrd-Bennett’s nefarious behavior (not only here, but in previous districts she worked in which are reviewing her handiwork). Karp’s reporting caught the attention of the CPS inspector general, who in turn brought in the feds. It took two years, though, for the case to be put together. Who knows where it is leading now. But surely there is more.
In the meantime, all manner of bad behavior has assuredly fallen through the cracks because there’s just too damn much of it to track.
For example, does anyone really believe that there is a sitting alderman who hasn’t committed felonious acts? If so, you just got into town.
This is a topic that Dick Simpson and Thomas Gradel took up in their 2015 book, .
“In our studies, we often refer to officials convicted of corruption,” they write. “But for each of them, there are many other public officials who did the same thing but didn’t get caught or didn’t go to trial in federal court. There are only three U.S. Attorneys in Illinois, and they have to focus on all federal crimes, not just political corruption. Therefore, much of it goes undetected. Inspectors general at the state, county, and city levels have shown conclusively in their reports that corruption in government is more pervasive than just the cases of those convicted would indicate.”
In an e-mail, Simpson told me that “There are many examples in inspector general reports, police officers who resign before being disciplined, and ‘legal’ corruption which suggest that those who are convicted by the U.S. Attorney are only the tip of the iceberg. We have usually used the 10% guess in our own work and have never been able to quantify it more accurately.”
Maybe that’s why so many keep doing it; most of the people they know get away with it.
But is Chicago really any worse than anywhere else? Actually, yes.
“Chicago is undoubtedly the most corrupt city in our nation,” Simpson and Gradel concluded in their book.
In their annual corruption report last year, Simpson and Gradel wrote:
“For more than a century and a half Chicago and Illinois have been notorious for public corruption. Year after year, national and international news media delightfully recount every new case of bribery, fraud, stealing from taxpayers, ghost payrollers and illegal patronage.
“Our shameful reputation has continued to provide fodder for scores of comedians and late-night talk show hosts. But corruption is not funny and it is not free. Its costs are steep. We all pay a staggeringly high corruption tax and we suffer from diminished government services. In addition, we are handicapped by a poorly functioning democracy because a large number of our citizens – with good reason – have lost faith in the honesty and fairness of government.”
Corruption is also robbing the city’s kids of their financial future.
Simpson and Gradel estimate that corruption costs Illinois about $500 million a year. We can reasonably infer that a large chunk of that cost is generated by Chicago alone.
“The Hired Truck scandal cost Chicago taxpayers $15 million per year for over 10 years. Police corruption, including more than $100 million paid out to victims of Lieutenant Jon Burge and his crew, cost about $50 million per year. Corruption, according to one state official, inflates the costs of all state government contracts by about five percent. With contracted goods and services representing a sizable portion of the state’s $61 billion annual budget, five percent quickly adds up to real money.
“The intangible costs are also real and important. Six children were killed in an accident caused by a truck driver who got his license after bribing a Secretary of State employee.
“And, research shows that Illinois’s reputation for corruption causes companies to avoid locating here.” Fewer jobs for you, Millennials.
To be fair, though, I suppose corruption also attracts certain companies who want to do business here. Companies like Redflex.
Bring It On
If the city is under siege, it’s not so much by federal investigators as it is by our own public officials. Patterns and practices? We’ve got ’em all! And we seem completely incapable of cleaning ourselves up. So, yes, bring in the feds. Bring in all the feds. Bring in the entire Justice Department. String crime tape along the city’s borders and make everyone inside empty their pockets. Put us under emergency control (but , though we have our own lead problems here).
It won’t happen, of course, but it’s a nice thought. In the meantime, let’s not kid ourselves about the depth of our problems here. We need all the investigations we can get.
- Dear DOJ: Investigate The Whole Damn City! - January 19, 2016
- The DOJ and Police Culture Change: Can it Happen in Chicago – Now? - December 7, 2015