Friday, January 13, 2006

The Daley Scandals of 2005

NOTE: [This is my story this week about Chicago corruption in The Wanderer, the oldest national Catholic newspaper, founded in 1867, the year I started as copy boy.]

CHICAGO—Life has no kick for this city’s Democratic mayor who, having traded on his family’s traditionalist Catholic stance by being elected a pro-life state senator, switched after the mayoralty to embrace not only abortion but same-sex marriage. Those not in the know, especially the national news media and the White House, refer to Richard M. Daley as the nation’s best mayor (witness the Time magazine designation given him last year) but those who cover this city understand that only the imposition of presidential politics on a brilliant federal attorney can save him from indictment.

Paraphrasing Shakespeare’s Lady MacBeth, it could be said that not all the perfumes of Arabia—including the World Series champion White Sox—can sweeten his pudgy, corruption-stained hands. Just last week after he announced his determination to woo a second pro football team here and build an 80,000 to 100,000-seat stadium as springboard to the 2016 Olympics, the FBI office down the street from City Hall issued a call for more probers to find what it sees as wholesale corruption.

FBI Special Agent in Charge Robert Grant reported that he and corruption nemesis U. S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald have asked for more agents despite the fact that the Chicago public corruption team is the largest in the country. “We asked headquarters to give us more bodies” he said. “If [they’re] going to give out bodies, we would like to have them and we would like to have them for public corruption.” What he meant was “we would like to have them TO FIGHT public corruption,” Chicago having sufficient bodies, alive and freshly dead, to testify for corruption.

Since early 2004, the feds have brought charges against 37 people involved in the scandal-ridden Hired Truck program, a scam where closely beloved Democratic partisans invest in trucks and line them up to be of purported service to the city. They paid bribes to be hired for city work and often the work went unattended while the meter ran full-tilt on payments. An early Sun-Times disclosure estimated that much of its $40 million annual cost was wasted on this effort with very little work produced, as lines of trucks were sitting idle in lots while taxpayers were paying heavily in the supposition that the vehicles were cleaning the streets. Those who benefited as truck owners then returned the favor with hefty campaign donations to the Democratic party. When minority ownership became the vogue, the new rules sent white owners scurrying to find the proper black and brown flesh-toned hires to agree to be listed as “owners.” Then as women ownership became mandated, scores of wives, ex-waitresses, romantic female liasions and doddering grandmothers suddenly graduated to the CEO status.

Daley, 63, is developing the same familiar pouch face and excitement-reddened cheeks as his late father plus a fresh habit of his own: exhaling wind in loud puffs in accusatory news conferences, his cheeks billowing as he seeks relief from the tension. But his father, 240-lb. five feet seven-inch Richard J., never had the heavy pressure as the son. For one thing he didn’t have a federal court order limiting patronage to stare at. The old man only had waves of angry blacks and anti-war protesters to worry about. Vote fraud was celebrated as a brilliant way of life for his urban democracy.

How things have changed. Last year on one day alone, his son cleaned out his cabinet, presumably under federal surveillance and stood discreetly to one side as the feds uncovered an alleged cocaine ring in the city’s major water filtration plant. Then there was the single day when a close friend, one James Duff, pleaded guilty to strategizing a plan to defraud the city of $100 million in contracts supposedly earmarked for minorities and women by setting up “ringers” of token CEOs who fronted for whites. Even after his conviction, it was disclosed that Duff’s company was continuing to belly up to the trough on a juicy $4.9 million winter salt contract.

Like a string of firecrackers, the year 2005 popped each week with disclosures: Daley’s favored Hispanic political organization headed by one Victor Reyes with ties to City Hall was linked to favored hiring prompting the feds to oversee city hiring…Reyes’ sister was suddenly heading a plumbing supply company that received city contracts…a minority telecommunications company was found to be guided by Thomas Donovan, no minority but an apple-cheeked Irishman whose ties go all the way back to the senior Daley; the clout-heavy owner of the newspaperman’s favorite greasy spoon, The Billy Goat tavern (immortalized by the late John Belushi yelling “cheez-borger! Cheez-borger!”), a Greek named Sam Sianis, was found to have recruited his own wife to be CEO of an O’Hare restaurant, at the suggestion of City Hall.

In an agony of self-confession, Daley dumped a Democratic regular procurer, er “chief procurement officer” for a purer version, one Mary Dempsey, a lawyer head of the public library system to establish transparency for a six-month period. Dempsey ousted so many Daley favorites that she almost decimated the funding base for the Democratic party, axing old Daley patrons Tony Rezko, former gaming board chairman Elzie Higginbottom (Daley’s link to middle class and upper middle class black money), construction behemoth F. H. Paschen (pronounced “passion” with a passion for huge public works) and the O’Hare field outpost of O’Brien’s restaurant, a favored Irish Catholic Democratic watering hole.

When her six months were up and she returned to the library, the mayor exhaled a mighty gasp of relief noticeable on television. He bypassed Dempsey’s reform deputy to install a favored African-American pol, Barbara Lumpkin who prompted rehired his old favorites. Then Daley decided to use the public relations arts to reestablish his credibility. He used his “State of the City” address to pledge that he would reform the Hired Truck program, swearing off campaign contributions from favored contractors, shouting that he would rather quit as mayor than see his name further sullied. He didn’t mean it but as further news developed, the press wondered just when his resignation would be.

The highpoint of his reform cycnicism was when he put in charge of the Hired Truck program one Angelo Torres who had several slight character imperfections leading him to plead guilty to taking more than $60,000 in bribes and shaking down truckers for at least $10,000 in campaign contributions. Then Daley learned that the lucrative lease to a classy restaurant in his spacious, newly consecrated Millennium Park on Michigan Avenue run by the Chicago Park District was awarded to a Democratic party favorite who got a high-ranking Chicago Park District official pregnant as result of his overly-persuasive negotiations. Daley vowed to get to the bottom of it; he hasn’t and the Park District official is still on the job as a new mom and the lease remains the same.

Following Time’s designation as the nation’s best mayor, Daley was confronted by a covey of federal agents descending on City Hall to seize personnel records of three departments while on the same day Patrick Fitzgerald announced a high water department official entered a guilty plea with a promise to tell all. As Daley exhaled on TV and mopped the perspiration from his upper lip, Fitzgerald announced that water department officials won promotions by being friends with Daley’s brother, John, the head of the Cook county board finance committee. Daley’s only supporter, Cong. Rahm Emanuel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign committee who owes his soul to Daley was cited by the feds for not knowing that an army of campaign workers in his behalf were on city time. John Daley’s brother-in-law was accused to swiping employees in and out in the water department which gave them paid days while not bothering with the tension of working on those days.

While Daley tried to be positive, his patronage chief Robert Sorich and a number of Bridgeport neighbors to the Daley family were charged with rigging test scores, conducting sham interviews and utilizing color-coded charts to identify political favorites in order to undermine a decree that years earlier had sought to reform political hiring. During last summer Victor Reyes, his old Hispanic buddy, was identified as one who while in the private sector sent marching orders to City Hall employees to form pro-Daley armies in elections. Five former city commissioners and four former and two current city personnel directors lined up to cooperate with the federal government. Then to qualify for a chutzpah award, Daley sought, with a news release timed for Christmas Day when nobody reads the papers, to void longstanding federal court restrictions on political hiring.

What does this exciting year in the history of municipal corruption mean for Daley? Under the 1983 decree, the city is supposedly prohibited from letting politics interfere with hiring, firing and promotions for all but about 1,100 of the city’s 38,000 jobs. Reserving 1,100 jobs for political appointees is not unduly restrictive: a presidential administration has in total only about 3,400 such jobs, the remainder of 3 million plus jobs reserved for civil service—but it is clear that under Daley the Chicago decree has been ignored. Remember, Patrick Fitzgerald saw fit to indict Scooter Libby for allegedly lying to a grand jury (but which, very reasonably, his memory had failed about phone calls he received numbering an average of 69 in number each day). Does one imagine that Daley can escape an indictment for trashing a federal order when the tally of political hiring can involve many if not most of the 38,000 jobs?

The answer, strangely enough, is yes—possibly. For some strange reason, Daley and President George W. Bush are extremely close despite the fact that Daley presides over a strongly politicized city government that has delivered thunderous majorities to Al Gore and John Kerry. Daley and his wife, Maggie, who use their chubby Irish countenances to skip over their avoidance of Catholic tenets on social issues, have been invited often to the White House and following Bush’s reelection spent hours of face-time with the President and Vice President Dick Cheney. I doubt whether a stalwart Henry J. Hyde has had such close proximity to the Bushies as have the Daleys.

Bush has been quoted as saying that Daley is indeed the greatest mayor. Whether Patrick Fitzgerald, who owes his high position to Bush, could be importuned to allow Daley to escape with a slap on the wrist isn’t known. Lying down before Daley on instructions from the White House isn’t exactly Fitzgerald’s style but one never knows. Fitzgerald incurred Vice President Cheney’s keen disappointment by indicting Libby; a possible indictment of Karl Rove could happen, which would prove that Fitzgerald is indeed as untouchable by politics s the media announces. By indicting Daley, Fitzgerald could cite almost 38,000 examples of political play for pay. By not indicting Daley, Fitzgerald could see his press image slip but then again, he may well become the next Attorney General of the United States.

How am I betting? Drat, my space has run out. All I can say is: stay tuned throughout 2006.

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