American as Mom, apple pie, and crooked Chicago politics


On the 4th of July, my wife and I will celebrate by going to a pops concert/fireworks show at a local concert hall, and by helping a local organization with their annual barbecue.

But I also want to spend a moment reflecting on an American tradition that has been part of this country’s history for almost 150 years: The blatant corruption of Chicago politics.

One of my favorite examples comes from 1959. A friend of mine grew up in Chicago, and was nine years old at the time, riding in a Buick with his father, when Dad was pulled over by a CPD motorcycle cop, who asked for a license. The custom was to wrap the license in a $5 bill, and solve the matter on the spot. My friend’s father looked in his wallet, found only a $20 and a $1, and asked if the cop could make change. The cop handed three fives through the window, and was waiting patiently for his $20 when his radio went off, calling him to an emergency somewhere. My friend’s father thought fast, handed the cop a $1 bill, and drove off in a major hurry.

Some things never change. In February 2012, a former Chicago alderman turned political science professor/corruption fighter announced that Chicago is the most corrupt city in the country, citing data from the U.S. Department of Justice to prove his case. Dick Simpson served as alderman of the 44th Ward in Lakeview from 1971 to 1979, and in this same announcement, he estimated the cost of corruption at $500 million. Simpson claims the costs of corruption act like a tax on citizens who pay for the cost of bad behavior, e.g. police brutality, bogus contracts, bribes, theft, ghost payrolling, and the costs of prosecuting these local traditions.

“We first of all, we have a long history,” Simpson said. “The first corruption trial was in 1869 when aldermen and county commissioners were convicted of rigging a contract to literally whitewash City Hall.”

In the Northern District of Illinois, which includes Chicago, there have been a total of 1,531 public corruption convictions since 1976, Simpson found. A distant second is California’s central district in Los Angeles, with 1,275 public corruption convictions since 1976, Simpson found. Corruption, Simpson claims that about a third of sitting aldermen since 1973 have been corrupt. “The truth, he said, “is that the governor’s mansion and the city council chambers have a far worse crime rate than the worst ghetto in Chicago.”

When Simpson made his announcement, he was scheduled to testify before the new Chicago Ethics Task Force at City Hall the next evening.  A week later, the Chicago City Council proved it’s not ready for reform. The council voted unanimously to pass the second set of reforms proposed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Ethics Task Force, but in the special way the reforms would apply to them. Instead of being accountable like all other city employees, aldermen created their own legislative inspector general. He can only investigate sworn complaints approved by the Ethics Board, not on his own initiative or from anonymous complaints. No matter what evidence is provided in support of the complaints.

Their legislative inspector general was given no staff and enforcement powers. So fast forward a year. What effect have his efforts had? Since his appointment, he has brought no cases to the ethics board or to state and federal prosecutors.

Despite the failure of the aldermen’s pet investigator, the parade of convictions rolls along. On June 17, 2013, it took a jury four hours to convict former alderman Ambrosio Medrano if conspiracy to commit bribery, with a maximum sentence of five years. He was arrested in a 2011 FBI sting, and accused of attempting to bribe a Los Angeles County official in exchange for a lucrative pharmaceutical contract for a $1 billion Nebraska-based prescription medication provider.

His first federal conviction?  Medrano was one of six aldermen indicted as part of an bribery/extortion investigation in the mid-90s known as Operation Silver Shovel. There’s a lot more detail, but the whole point of the story is contained in the previous sentence, in five short words: “One of six aldermen indicted.””

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